Design Futures, Sacred Groves

[Image: From Growing A Hidden Architecture by Christian Kerrigan].

[Nearly a decade ago, I wrote a series of blog posts as part of a Fellowship at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Those posts appear to be falling into an internet memory hole, so I thought I’d reproduce lightly edited versions of some of them here, simply for posterity.]

Toward the end of 2009, the journal Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes published an interesting paper by garden historian Patrick Bowe, called “The Sacred Groves of Ancient Greece.”

Specialized landscapes animated by very particular forms of cultural use, sacred groves “held a significant place in ancient Greek life over ten centuries,” Bowe writes. Indeed, “They formed significant landmarks in the landscape, both urban and rural.”

Geographers described them. Poets evoked them. Philosophers discussed them. In them, natural woodland was conserved and new wood planted, primarily for religious, but also for recreational, purposes. Architectural and sculptural elements were disposed. Prominent natural features were highlighted. Some individual trees, being considered sacred, were also conserved. In these various activities, the beginnings of the Western tradition of designed landscapes can be found.

Bowe’s ensuing history of sacred groves describes these “ritual zones” of the forest in terms of “the physical aspects of sacred groves, their location and size, the different kinds of trees of which they were composed, the architectural and sculptural elements that were installed in them and the adaptation for use of some of the natural features located in them.”

This has the effect, he notes, of filling a noticeable hole in historical scholarship: “No detailed description of a sacred grove survives from ancient Greek literature. However, a compilation of the many passing and diverse references in the literature, dating from the eighth century BC”—by which Bowe means Homer—“to the second century AD”—by which he means Pausanias—“may provide us with a composite picture.”

Somewhat obviously, sacred groves don’t leave much to see in the archaeological record—”archaeological evidence is sparse,” Bowe writes with understatement—as their vegetation dies, rots, spreads, or is deliberately torn up and replaced over time (all of the above, in fact, often erase Greek sacred groves from the terrestrial record).

Landscape historians are thus left searching for other sources of information about the ancient world’s enigmatic sacred land-use patterns. Interestingly, these sources include poems and even coinage—archaeology by way of numismatics. Bowe writes that “the evidence of contemporary coins” implies what these groves might have looked like, these coins’ obverse images depicting “boundary walls and entrances,” gates and artificially arranged stone features, as certain groves were shown in miniature on the backs of these moneyed pieces.

The very idea that money might serve as a useful object of study in an art historical survey of lost landscapes is inspiringly unexpected. A visual history of landscape told entirely through coins!

In any case, Bowe assembles a list of tree species most often associated with these sacred sites, including cypress, poplar, olive, oak, cedar, willow, plane, ash, apple, pine, and even palm trees. These groves were quite varied locations, botanically speaking, and they consisted of both wild and cultivated varieties of the trees at hand.

It simply wasn’t the case that a sacred grove had to be one particular type of tree, or that it had to be wild; the sacred qualities came from how the grove was treated, used, interpreted, and even deliberately rebuilt. In the latter case, adding small architectural features, including fences and gates, or even statuettes to the grove were ways of making sacred what in other circumstances might have been a mere garden.

While Bowe’s literary-numismatic archaeology of sacred groves is already fascinating, I found myself wondering what sorts of uniquely specific groves or small forests of our own time might be seen, even if only millennia from now, as “sacred” in some way or another. The “sacred grove,” seen in this light, would really be a kind of specialized forestry service, and thus something interpretatively present in a variety of surprising sites.

After all, it is distinctly possible that a landscape now retroactively seen as sacred might not have been anything of the sort; perhaps it was simply being grown for timber; perhaps it was the subject of a property dispute; perhaps it was over-run with insects for a decade or two and thus left untouched. It should always be assumed, in other words, that ancient sites we jump to call “sacred” might actually have been utterly mundane.

Accordingly, I’ve put together a short, entirely subjective, and by no means anywhere near exhaustive list of a few speculative landscape design proposals and real-life forestry sites that strike me as particularly worthy of consideration in the context of the ancient Greek sacred grove. If, in some future catalog of lost landscapes, one of the following sites was to be listed alongside the sacred groves of a forgotten civilization, how might that transform our understanding of their intended spatial role?

Consider this list nothing more than a brief conversation-starter.

The Shapely Grove

[Image: From “Atree?” by the Bureau of Architecture, Research, and Design (BOARD)].

Rotterdam-based design firm Bureau of Architecture, Research, and Design (BOARD) recently proposed a grove of twisted and looping arboreal forms called “Atree?

[Image: From “Atree?” by the Bureau of Architecture, Research, and Design (BOARD)].

“Imagine a project that does not need to be constructed,” they write, “because—being a tree—it grows by itself.”

Such a project only needs to be planted. Therefore the transportation of the materials for such a project is very energy efficient, because as a matter of fact, no major transportation of materials is actually necessary. The only materials to be transported are the seeds for planting. And the only energy spent is to prevent hastiness and impetuousness as such a project needs a lot of time and patience to grow.

Using clip-on bioplastic molds that “can easily be transported by bike to the site and fixed simply to the trees,” along with “a fast growing willow that reaches a height of more than two meters in only one year,” BOARD’s roller coaster of a grove would put even Axel Erlandson’s so-called tree circus to shame.

[Image: From “Atree?” by the Bureau of Architecture, Research, and Design (BOARD)].

Are these formal manipulations of a traditional thicket nothing more than stylistic play—mere ornamental tweaking—or do they reveal something more fundamental about how we can relate to the growth and tending of global forests?

Further, could a grove of deliberately misshapen trees—that is, trees that have been formally remade—be archaeologically mistaken for a place of religious significance? If so, what beliefs might we assume were being celebrated in these carnivalesque examples of what Bowe would call “ritual zones”—and who might we think had constructed them? Perhaps a strange race of druidic geometers once turned their forests into prayers and diagrams.

The Moon Trees of Apollo
One of the strangest entries on this list is also very real: the so-called Moon Trees are a distributed forest of redwood, sycamore, loblolly pine, sweetgum, and douglas fir saplings grown from seeds that were taken to the moon and back as part of the Apollo space program.

Apollo 14 launched in the late afternoon of January 31, 1971 on what was to be our third trip to the lunar surface. Five days later Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell walked on the Moon while Stuart Roosa, a former U.S. Forest Service smoke jumper, orbited above in the command module. Packed in small containers in Roosa’s personal kit were hundreds of tree seeds, part of a joint NASA/USFS project. Upon return to Earth, the seeds were germinated by the Forest Service. Known as the “Moon Trees,” the resulting seedlings were planted throughout the United States (often as part of the nation’s bicentennial in 1976) and the world. They stand as a tribute to astronaut Roosa and the Apollo program.

Fantastically, grafts and seeds from the original Moon Trees have since been planted elsewhere, producing second-generation Moon Trees that grow freely in private backyards, public parks, and open forests around the planet.

Compare Moon Trees to the space seed program run by the Chinese government, “a mission that will expose 2000 seeds to cosmic radiation and microgravity.” These cosmically exposed seeds have since been planted here on earth, in the hope of producing a slightly ominous-sounding batch of “super-crops.”

But what about a super-forest—cosmically exposed Moon Trees grown on a continental scale, in a vast sacred grove shaped by radiation from deep space?

The Duplicative Forest

[Image: The Duplicative Forest—17,000 acres of identical trees—courtesy of Atlas Obscura].

I have written elsewhere about a place in Oregon called the duplicative forest, but it seems worth mentioning again in the present context. The “duplicative forest” is a 17,000-acre farm whose poplar trees are “all the same height and thickness,” we read courtesy of Atlas Obscura, as well as “evenly spaced in all directions. The effect is compounded when blasting by at 75 mph. If you look for too long the strobe effect may induce seizures.”

The discovery of an optically mesmerizing forest landscape, one with potential neurological effects on its visitors, and one that was very clearly planted according to an artificial geometric plan, will perhaps not instantly seem like a tree farm several hundred years from now; until its actual quotidian purpose is deduced, the duplicative-forest-as-sacred-grove would be a wonderfully odd thing to ponder.

Jaguar Wood
In England, the car company Jaguar has planted a forest of walnut trees, partially to offset its harvesting needs for the fine wood used in its cars’ interiors. As Jaguar themselves describe the specialty landscape:

The Jaguar Walnut Wood is located at Lount in the heart of Leicestershire, less than 50km from Jaguar’s UK HQ. It was first planted on former farmland in 2001, but there are now more than 13,000 walnut trees and 70,000 other trees in a scenic 80-hectare woodland. Within it is a 27-hectare experimental zone researching the growth of different varieties of walnut tree for use as a hardwood timber and as a source of nuts.

The mathematical logic of an “offset” landscape—something planted or maintained in one location in order to make up for the loss or insufficient quantity of something elsewhere, forming an economic chain of surrogacy and doubling—is already quite fascinating, but a forest specially cultivated by an automotive firm adds an interesting touch.

While wood from these groves does not actually make it into Jaguar cars, the “experimental zone” inside the forest might seem rather regal—or perhaps simply surreal—to anyone stumbling upon records of it in a thousand years’ time.

And who knows: perhaps we might even someday discover that a small grove of walnut trees growing on a hill in upstate New York, on a distant tributary of the Hudson, was actually planted for no other reason than to panel the interior walls of a specific skyscraper in 1950s Manhattan, a grove now derelict and teeming with weeds, its original purpose gone, the rooms it was once meant to panel now themselves long dismantled; or an entire forest somewhere north of Athens, Greece, originally planted to serve as wood stock for a Mediterranean fleet, its trunks and branches grown only for hulling warships, now lies abandoned, bearing no historical trace of that earlier purpose.

How do we account for these missing histories of specialty groves in our sense of landscape mythology?

Her Majesty’s Shipbuilding Forest
The New Forest in England was, in fact, once extensively used and harvested for the purpose of Royal shipbuilding. From the period 1685 to 1875, “timber requirements of the Navy dominate[d] the Forest,” we read in a short history of the landscape. There are even now remnant groves left over from those ship-planting days:

Admiral Nelson, ever mindful of the needs of shipbuilding, visited in 1802 and declared the “finest timber in the kingdom” had sunk to a deplorable state! So, 30 million acorns were planted across 11,000 acres. But before the oaks were half grown, they were redundant, replaced by iron and steel in the shipbuilders’ yards. Thanks to Nelson, however, the forest now contains the country’s largest area of mature oak.

In other words, scattered across an area of nearly 11,000 acres are trees that never became ships—escaping that fate in which whole forests would go to war at sea, their wood sailing into battle in the form of imperial fleets.

We might ask, then: Could a sacred grove be something in which future ships are deliberately cultivated? For me, the most interesting aspect of that question would be the idea that, hovering negatively like a ghost around a forest’s growing branches, are the devices, ships, buildings, and machines that those forests are meant to become—like wooden Transformers, whole groves will unlock their roots from shattered bedrock, clip together in filigrees of undergrowth, and assemble into some vast and fearsome battleship, which then floats out with a monstrous roar into the wine-dark sea.

Growing a Hidden Architecture

[Image: From Growing A Hidden Architecture by Christian Kerrigan].

As it happens, this very idea was the premise of a fascinating graduate student project at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London several years ago.

[Image: From Growing A Hidden Architecture by Christian Kerrigan].

For Growing A Hidden Architecture, Christian Kerrigan proposed an awe-inspiring series of contraptions—collars, tourniquets, hinges, corsets, and belts—that could be attached to still-growing trees, bending and shaping their growth into a functioning, sea-ready ship.

[Images: From Growing A Hidden Architecture by Christian Kerrigan].

“By controlling the manipulation of refined armatures, calibrating devices and designed corsets,” Kerrigan writes, “the system is capable of controlling the growth of a ship inside the forest. The ship will grow over a period of 200 years and will exist as a hidden architecture inside the trees. The ship growing in the forest is the ship from the ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ a tale of man’s relationship to mortality.”

[Image: From Growing A Hidden Architecture by Christian Kerrigan].

In a particularly awesome detail, “the artificial system harvests resin from the trees to measure time passing”:

Slowly growing to completion, the end of the system within the forest is signalled by the Amber Clock, the resin cycles in the trees keeping time. The armatures alter the geometries of the copse with technologies, which are spliced into the hull of the ship.

Kerrigan’s vision of a ship self-assembling through carefully restricted tree growth—and the architectural implications of such a technique—is both astonishing and powerful.

[Image: From Growing A Hidden Architecture by Christian Kerrigan].

The entirety of his project is worth exploring in full.

The Grove as Growth Assembly

[Image: From Growth Assembly by Sascha Pohflepp, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Sion Ap Tomos].

Rounding out this short list of possible “sacred groves” is a project by Sascha Pohflepp, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and illustrator Sion Ap Tomos that explored a similar idea to Kerrigan’s.

[Image: From Growth Assembly by Sascha Pohflepp, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Sion Ap Tomos].

Called Growth Assembly, their project included the added splash of gene-splicing: the trio proposed a grove of genetically modified trees that could sprout machine-parts instead of fruit.

Pohflepp writes: “Coded into the DNA of a plant, product parts grow within the supporting system of the plant’s structure. When fully developed, they are stripped like a walnut from its shell or corn from its husk, ready for assembly.”

[Image: From Growth Assembly by Sascha Pohflepp, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Sion Ap Tomos].

This genetic revolution in plant-based manufacturing—wherein the gears used in your car’s engine might actually be the hard fruit of modified trees—would have a corresponding effect on the world’s economic landscape:

Shops have evolved into factory farms as licensed products are grown where sold. Large items take time to grow and are more expensive while small ones are more affordable. The postal service delivers lightweight seed-packets for domestic manufacturers.

Like some Industrial Age “Jack and the Beanstalk,” you simply plant a few seeds and watch as vast, living factories soon grow.

[Image: From Growth Assembly by Sascha Pohflepp, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Sion Ap Tomos].

So, with these projects in mind, and having read Bowe’s essay, what other unexpected forest landscapes might we suggest as viable candidates for inclusion in a broadened definition of the sacred grove—a new kind of sacred sci-fi, with mutated trees and fruitful juxtapositions? What is the design future of the sacred grove?

Computational Landscape Architecture

[Image: An otherwise unrelated photo, via FNN/Colossal].

In 2017, researchers attending the annual Cable-Tec Expo presented a paper looking at the effect certain trees can have on wireless-signal propagation in the landscape.

In “North America in general,” the researchers wrote, “large swathes of geography are dominated by trees and other foliage which, depending on seasonal growth and longitude, can interrupt a good many LOS [line of sight] apertures between BS [a base station] and client and present performance challenges.”

That is to say, parts of North America are heavily forested enough that the landscape itself has a negative effect on signal performance, including domestic and regional WiFi.

Their presentation included a graph analyzing the effects that particular tree species—pine, spruce, maple—can have on wireless signals. “The impact of deciduous and conifer trees (under gusty wind conditions) suggest that the leaf density from the conifer more frequently produces heavy link losses and these,” they explain.

In other words, for the sake of signals, plant deciduous.

[Image: From “Can a Fixed Wireless Last 100m Connection Really Compete with a Wired Connection and Will 5G Really Enable this Opportunity?”]

What interests me here is the possibility that we might someday begin landscaping our suburbs, our corporate campuses, our urban business parks, according to which species of vegetation are less likely to block WiFi.

There is already a move toward xeriscaping, for example—or planting indigenous species tolerant of arid climates in cities such as Phoenix and Los Angeles—but what about WiFi-scaping, landscapes sown specifically for their electromagnetic-propagation effects?

One of my favorite studies of the last decade looked at whether trees planted around a fuel-storage depot in England known as Buncefield might have inadvertently caused a massive gas explosion. In this case, though, a site’s landscaping might instead cause data-propagation errors.

You can imagine, for example, vindictive foreign governments purposefully surrounding an American embassy with trees unpermissive of signal propagation, even deliberately donating specific indoor plant species known for their negative effects on electromagnetic signals. A kind of living, vegetative Faraday cage.

Hostile houseplant-gifting networks. Like the plot of some future David Cronenberg film.

[Image: Lucian Freud, “Interior in Paddington” (1951), via Tate Britain].

In any case, this brings to mind many things.

A recent study published in the MIT Technology Review, for example, suggested that WiFi could be used to spy on human movements inside architecture. The paper documents how researchers used WiFi “to work out the position, actions, and movement of individuals” inside otherwise sealed rooms.

It’s worth recalling the use of WiFi as a burglar alarm, whereby unexpected human intruders can be detected when their bodies perturb the local WiFi field. Is that someone walking toward you in the dark…? Your router might see them before you do, as their movement cause bulges and malformations in your home’s WiFi.

The more relevant implication, however, is that you could potentially use WiFi to spy on movements in the broader landscape. Deciduous forests would be easier than coniferous, it seems.

You could soak a forest in electromagnetic signals—yes, I know this is not the greatest idea—and measure those signals’ reflection to count, say, active birds, beetles, badgers, or other participants in the wilderness. It’s WiFi as a tool for ecological analysis: you set up a router and watch as its signals reverberate through the forests and fields. Animal radar.

Finally, consider a study published last year that suggested WiFi signals could be turned into a computational device. According to researchers Philipp del Hougne and Geoffroy Lerose, you can “perform analog computation with Wi-Fi waves reverberating in a room.”

Read their paper to find out more, but what seems so interesting in the present context is the idea that forested landscapes could be grown to cultivate their WiFi computational ability. Like botanical pinball machines, you could design, plant, and grow entire forests based on their ability to reflect future WiFi signals in very specific ways, artificial landscapes destined to perform computational tasks.

A bitcoin forest. WiFi forestry.

Or forest supercomputers, pruned for their ability to plumb the mathematical sublime.

(Thanks to Jameson Zimmer for the tip re: WiFI and trees. Earlier on BLDGBLOG: The Design Forest of the Sacred Grove, Forest Tone, and many others.)


[Image: Typing messages with Katie Holten’s tree alphabet].

You may recall artist Katie Holten’s tree typeface, written-up here a few years back.

Holten has now created a whole new tree alphabet, based on trees growing in the New York City region. “Each letter of the Latin alphabet is assigned a drawing of a tree from the NYC Parks Department’s existing native and non-native trees,” Holten writes, “as well as species that are to be planted as a result of the changing climate. For example, A = Ash.”

That typeface is also available as a free download, so you can type your own forests into existence with abandon. All the world’s literature, translated into trees.

What’s more, Holten is overseeing a program to actually plant the trees referenced by the alphabet, resulting in what she calls an “an alphabetical planting palette: people can give us their messages and we’ll plant them around the city with real trees.”

Follow the project on Holten’s website for updates.

Patent Diagrams for Artificial Trees

At least, after we’ve cut down every last tree and forest, once we’ve rid the world of natural species, we’ll know how to build their replacements. Here are some diagrams for artificial trees, signed by their inventors, down to specific tufting techniques and mechanisms for branch attachments. Our future forests will be colorfast and fade-resistant—perhaps machine-washable—filled with recordings of historical birdsong, the world a puzzle we took apart believing someone else would know how to put it back together.

(All via Google Patents.)

Quick Links

Some midweek reading material…

[Images: Muons beneath the Alps; via and via].

I’m pretty much obsessed with muons—subatomic particles that have been used to map the interiors of archaeological ruins—so I was interested to see that muons have now also been put to work mapping the bedrock beneath glaciers in the Swiss Alps. It is the “first application of the technique in glacial geology,” Eos reports. Even better, it uses underground railway infrastructure—the Jungfrau rail tunnel—as part of its experimental apparatus.

[Image: Mountain, written by Robert Macfarlane].

Robert Macfarlane has written a movie called Mountain, narrated by Willem Defoe. Macfarlane also recently joined Twitter, where he has rapidly accumulated nearly 28,000 followers.

The world’s sand is running out—indeed, “it’s scarcer than you think,” David Owen writes for The New Yorker. As highlighted on Twitter by @lowlowtide, the piece includes this great line: “The problems start when people begin to think of mutable landforms as permanent property.” Sand, and the peculiar economies that value it, has gotten quite a bit of attention over the past few years; among other coverage, a long feature in Wired two years ago is worth checking out.

Researchers at Penn State have figured out a way to generate electricity from the chemical mixing point where freshwater rivers reach the sea. “‘The goal of this technology is to generate electricity from where the rivers meet the ocean,’ said Christopher Gorski, assistant professor in environmental engineering at Penn State. ‘It’s based on the difference in the salt concentrations between the two water sources.’”

Hawaii is experiencing an unusually intense barrage of high tides, known as “king tides.” “For the people of Hawaii, alarm bells are ringing,” Adrienne LaFrance writes for The Atlantic. “King tides like this aren’t just a historic anomaly; they’re a sign of what’s to come… Scientists believe Hawaii could experience a sea-level increase of three feet by the year 2100, which is in line with global predictions of sea-level change and which would substantially reshape life on the Islands. That’s part of why scientists are enlisting volunteers to help photograph and describe incremental high tides across Hawaii.” Read more at The Atlantic.

[Image: Courtesy Places Journal/Zach Mortice].

Over at Places, landscape architect Zach Mortice takes a long look at what he calls “perpetual neglect” and the challenge of historic preservation in African-American burial grounds. Badly maintained—and, in some cases, almost entirely erased—black cemeteries reveal “that the racism and inequality that plague African Americans in life are perpetuated in death,” Mortice suggests. This is “nothing less than a preservation crisis for black burial grounds across the country.”

I recently discovered the existence of something called Betonamit. Betonamit is a “non-explosive cracking agent,” essentially a “non-toxic” powder that can be used for the slow-motion demolition of buildings and geological forms. “When mixed with water and poured into holes 1 1/4″, 1 3/8″ or 1 1/2″ diameter, it hardens and expands, exerting pressures of 12,000 psi. Reinforced concrete, boulders, and ledge[s] are fractured overnight with no noise, vibration, or flyrock.” I’m imagining a truck full of this stuff overturning on a crack-laden bridge somewhere, just an hour before a rainstorm begins, or a storage yard filled with crates of this stuff being ripped apart in the summer wind; a seemingly innocuous grey powder drifts out across an entire neighborhood for the next few hours, settling down into cracks on brick rooftops and stone facades, in sidewalks and roadbeds. Then the rains begin. The city crumbles. Weaponized demolition powder.

In any case, I actually stumbled upon Betonamit after reading a few blog posts on that company’s in-house blog. Atlas Preservation has a handful of interesting short articles up documenting their preservation work, including what might be the oldest gravestone in the United States and the challenges of open-air cemetery preservation. Let’s hope no one goes wandering amongst the tombs with a bucket of Betonamit…

The BBC went into horror-movie mode earlier this month, asking, “what would happen if we were suddenly exposed to deadly bacteria and viruses that have been absent for thousands of years, or that we have never met before? We may be about to find out. Climate change is melting permafrost soils that have been frozen for thousands of years, and as the soils melt they are releasing ancient viruses and bacteria that, having lain dormant, are springing back to life.” The headline is straight-forward enough, I suppose: “There are diseases hidden in ice, and they are waking up.”

[Images: Courtesy Waxwork Records].

Fans of John Carpenter’s (excellent) 1982 film The Thing might be interested to hear that the original score has been remastered and released on vinyl. The final product is visually gorgeous—and temporarily sold out. Keep your ears peeled for further pressings.

A retired F.B.I. investigator has newly dedicated himself to tracking down lost apple varietals of the Pacific Northwest. They are not extinct; they have simply disappeared into the background, both ecologically and historically. They are trees that have “faded into woods, or were absorbed by parks or other public lands,” but the apples that grow from them can still be enjoyed and cultivated.

If you are interested in apples and their history, meanwhile, don’t miss the late Roger Deakin’s superb book, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees.

[Images: Courtesy Public Domain Review].

Blending into the natural landscape is the subject of a fascinating piece over at Public Domain Review about the early wildlife photographers, Richard and Cherry Kearton. In order not to scare away their subject matter, the Keartons constructed artificial trees, put on short, deliberately misleading performative displays for wildlife, and carved masks that would help camouflage them against the woodlands.

There’s more—always more!—to link to and read, but I’ll leave it at that. For other, ongoing links, I am also on Twitter.

Tree Rings and Seismic Swarms

[Image: An otherwise unrelated print of tree rings from Yellowstone National Park, by LintonArt; buy prints here].

The previous post reminded me of an article published in the December 2010 issue of Geology, explaining that spikes in carbon dioxide released by subterranean magma flows beneath Yellowstone National Park have been physically recorded in the rings of trees growing on the ground above.

What’s more, those pulses of carbon dioxide corresponded to seismic events, as the Earth moves and gases are released, with the effect that the trees themselves can thus be studied as archives of ancient seismic activity.

“Plants that grow in areas of strong magmatic CO2 emissions fix carbon that is depleted in [Carbon-14] relative to normal atmosphere, and annual records of emission strength can be preserved in tree rings,” we read. “Yellowstone is a logical target” for a study such as this, the authors continue, “because its swarm seismicity and deformation are often ascribed to buildup and escape of high-pressure magmatic fluids.” The release of gases affects tree growth, which is then reflected in those trees’ rings.

I’ve written before about how tree rings are also archives of solar activity. See this quotation from the book Earth’s Magnetism in the Age of Sail, by A.R.T. Jonkers, for example:

In 1904 a young American named Andrew Ellicott Douglass started to collect tree specimens. He was not seeking a pastime to fill his hours of leisure; his motivation was purely professional. Yet he was not employed by any forestry department or timber company, and he was neither a gardener not a botanist. For decades he continued to amass chunks of wood, all because of a lingering suspicion that a tree’s bark was shielding more than sap and cellulose. He was not interested in termites, or fungal parasites, or extracting new medicine from plants. Douglass was an astronomer, and he was searching for evidence of sunspots.

Slicing open trees, searching for evidence of sunspots. This is a very peculiar—and awesomely poetic—form of astronomy, one locked inside objects all around us.

In the case of the Yellowstone study, a particular seismic swarm, one that hit the region back in 1978, apparently left measurable traces in the wood rhythms of local tree ring growth—in other words, surface-dwelling organisms in the Park were found to bear witness, in their very structure, to shifts occurring much deeper in the planet they live upon. They are measuring sticks of subterranea.

Combine this, then, with Andrew Ellicott Douglass’s work, and you’ve got tree rings as strange indicators of worlds hidden both below and far away: scarred by subterranean plumes of asphyxiating gas and marked by the variable burning of nearby stars. They are telescopes and seismometers in one, tools through which shifts in the sun and in the Earth’s own structure can be painstakingly divined.


In the forests of northern Ontario, a “strange phenomenon” of large natural rings occurs, where thousands of circles, as large as two kilometers in diameter, appear in the remote landscape.

ForestRings1[Image: From the thesis “Geochemistry of Forest Rings in Northern Ontario: Identification of Ring Edge Processes in Peat and Soil” (PDF) by Kerstin M. Brander, University of Ottawa].

“From the air, these mysterious light-coloured rings of stunted tree growth are clearly visible,” the CBC explained back in 2008, “but on the ground, you could walk right through them without noticing them.”

Since they were discovered on aerial photos about 50 years ago, the rings have baffled biologists, geologists and foresters… Astronomers suggest the rings might be the result of meteor strikes. Prospectors wonder whether the formations signal diamond-bearing kimberlites, a type of igneous rock.

While it’s easy to get carried away with visions of supernatural tree rings growing of their own accord in the boreal forests, this is actually one of the more awesome examples of where the likely scientific explanation is also significantly more interesting than something more explicitly other-worldly.

Geochemistry of Forest Rings in northern Ontario:[Image: From the thesis “Geochemistry of Forest Rings in Northern Ontario: Identification of Ring Edge Processes in Peat and Soil” (PDF) by Kerstin M. Brander, University of Ottawa].

Indeed, as geochemist Stew Hamilton suggested in 1998, the rings are most likely to be surface features caused by “reduced chimneys,” or “big centres of negative charge that frequently occur over metal deposits,” where a forest ring is simply “a special case of a reduced chimney.”

Reduced chimneys, meanwhile, are “giant electrochemical cells” in the ground that, as seen through the example of forest rings, can affect the way vegetation grows there.

rings[Image: Screen-grab from Google Maps].

One of many things worth highlighting here is this suggestion that the trees are being influenced from below by ambient electrochemical processes in the soil, set into motion by the region’s deep geology:

Hamilton was testing an analytical technique over a Matheson gold deposit to determine if there was any kind of geochemical surface signal. To his surprise, there were signals coming through 30 to 40 metres of glacial clay.

“We’re thinking there’s no way metals can move through clay 10,000 years after glaciation.”

After ruling out transport by ground water, diffusion and gas, he theorized it had to have been lifted to surface on electrical fields.

He applied the same theory to forest rings and discovered that they were also giant negatively charged cells.

Any source of negative charge will create a forest ring.

In landscape architecture terms, a forest ring—which Hamilton describes [PDF] as “a plant assemblage that is different from the surrounding forest making the features visible from the air”—could be seen as a kind of indirect electrochemical garden taking on a recognizably geometrical form without human intervention.

In effect, their shape is expressed from below. For ambitious future landscape designers, note that this implies a potential use of plantlife as a means for revealing naturally occurring electrical networks in the ground, where soil batteries and other forms of terrestrial electronics could articulate themselves through botanical side-effects.

That is, plant a forest; come back after twenty years; discover vast rings of negative electrochemical charge like smoke rings pushing upward from inside the earth.

Or, of course, you could reverse this: design for future landscape-architectural effects by formatting the deep soil of a given site, thus catalyzing subterranean electrochemical activity that, years if not generations later, would begin to have aesthetic effects.

ForestRings3[Image: From the paper “Spontaneous potential and redox responses over a forest ring” (PDF) by Stewart M. Hamilton and Keiko H. Hattori].

But it gets weirder: as Hamilton’s fieldwork also revealed, there is a measurable “bulge in the water table that occurs over the entire length of the forest ring with a profound dip on the ring’s outer edge.” For Hamilton, this effect was “beyond science fiction,” he remarked to the trade journal Northern Ontario Business, “it’s unbelievable.”

What this means, he explained, is that “the water is being held up against gravity” by naturally occurring electrical fields.

ForestRings4[Image: From the paper “Spontaneous potential and redox responses over a forest ring” (PDF) by Stewart M. Hamilton and Keiko H. Hattori].

Subsequent and still-ongoing research by other geologists and geochemists has shown that forest rings are also marked by the elevated presence of methane (which explains the “stunted tree growth”), caused by natural gas leaking up from geological structures beneath the forest.

Hamilton himself wrote, in a short report for the Ontario Geological Survey [PDF], that forest ring formation “may be due to upward methane seepage along geological structures from deeper sources,” and that this “may indicate deeper sources of natural gas in the James Bay Lowlands.”

Other hypotheses suggest that these forest rings could instead be surface indicators of diamond pipes and coal deposits—meaning that, given access to an aerial view, you can, in effect, “read” the earth’s biosphere as a living tissue of signs or symptoms through which deeper, non-biological phenomena (coal, diamonds, metals) are revealed.

ForestRings5[Image: Forest ring at N 49° 16′ 05″, W 83° 45′ 01″, via Google Maps].

Even better, these electrochemical effects stop on a macro-scale where the subsurface geology changes; as Hamilton points out [PDF], the “eastward disappearance of rings in Quebec occurs at the north-south Haricanna Moraine, which coincides with a sudden drop in the carbonate content of soils.”

If you recall that there were once naturally-occurring nuclear reactors burning away in the rocks below Gabon, then the implication here would be that large-scale geological formations, given the right slurry of carbonates, metals, and clays, can also form naturally-occurring super-batteries during particular phases of their existence.

To put this another way, through an accident of geology, what we refer to as “ground” in northern Ontario could actually be thought of a vast circuitboard of electrochemically active geological deposits, where an ambient negative charge in the soil has given rise to geometric shapes in the forest.

ForestRings6[Image: Forest rings at N 49° 29′ 48″, W 80° 05′ 40″, via Google Maps].

In any case, there is something pretty incredible about the idea that you could be hiking through the forests of northern Ontario without ever knowing you’re surrounded by huge, invisible, negatively charged megastructures exhibiting geometric effects on the plantlife all around you.

Several years ago, I wrote a post about the future of the “sacred grove” for the Canadian Centre for Architecture, based on a paper called “The sacred groves of ancient Greece” by art historian Patrick Bowe. I mention this because it’s interesting to consider the forest rings of northern Ontario in the larger interpretive context of Bowe’s paper, not because there is any historical or empirical connection between the two, of course; but, rather, for the speculative value of questioning whether these types of anomalous forest-effects could, under certain cultural circumstances, carry symbolic weight. If they could, that is, become “sacred groves.”

Indeed, it is quite thrilling and strange to imagine some future cult of electrical activity whose spaces of worship and gathering are remote boreal rings, circular phenomena in the far north where water moves against gravity and chemical reactions crackle outward through the soil, forcing forests to take symmetrical forms only visible from high above.

For more on forest rings, check out the CBC or Northern Ontario Business or check out any of the PDFs linked in this post.

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.”

Forest Megaphone

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

These architectural objects are “gigantic wooden megaphones” for the forest, part of an acoustic installation in Estonia’s gorgeous Pähni Nature Centre for amplifying the sounds of the landscape.

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

“According to interior architect Hannes Praks,” we read in a newly published press release, “who leads the Interior Architecture Department of the [Estonian Academy of Arts] that initiated the installation project, the three-metre diameter megaphones will operate as a ‘bandstand’ for the forest around the installation, amplifying the sounds of nature.”

The actual design is by a student named Birgit Õigus.

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

Part building, part furniture, part recreational folly, they’re meant to focus visitor attention on the smallest acoustic details of the site—rainfall, branches brushing against one another in the breeze, distant footsteps, thunder.

[Image: Photos by Tõnu Tunnel].

Sit in them, read books, whisper to friends, listen to birds.

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

Not having visited these in person, I can’t speak to their performance—i.e. whether they function as planned—and the relatively orderly placement of each structure in the woods might very well lead to some unfortunately conservative acoustic effects.

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

Nonetheless, it’s a great idea for a project, and the geometric simplicity of the stained timber frame is compelling.

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

Of course, these bring to mind the so-called “acoustic mirrors” of coastal Britain that we looked at here more than a decade ago.

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

In turn, makes me wonder how these forest megaphones might appear six or seven decades from now, when small groups of hikers stumble upon the moss-covered forms of this old acoustic infrastructure, trying to determine amongst themselves if the strange audio effects and interrupted echoes they notice still filtering through the wooden forms are a curious accident or an engineered goal.

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

Typographic Forestry and Other Landscapes of Translation

[Image: The cover for About Trees, edited by Katie Holten].

Artist Katie Holten—who participated in “Landscapes of Quarantine” a few years back—has just published an interesting book called About Trees.

It is essentially an edited compilation of texts about, yes, trees, but also about forests, landscapes of the anthropocene, unkempt wildness, altered ecosystems, and, more broadly speaking, the idea of nature itself.

It ranges from short texts by Robert Macfarlane—recently discussed here—to James Gleick, and from Amy Franceschini to Natalie Jeremijenko. These join a swath of older work by Jorge Luis Borges, with even Radiohead (“Fake Plastic Trees”) thrown in for good measure.

It’s an impressively nuanced selection, one that veers between the encyclopedic and the folkloric, and it has been given a great and memorable graphic twist by the fact that Holten, working with designer Katie Brown, generated a new font using nothing less than the silhouettes of trees.

Every letter of the alphabet corresponds to a specific species of tree.

[Image: The tree typeface from About Trees, edited by Katie Holten].

This has been put to good use, re-setting the existing texts using this new font—with the delightful effect of seeing the work of Jorge Luis Borges transcribed, in effect, into trees.

This has the awesome implication that someone could actually plant this: a typographic forestry of Borges translations.

[Image: Borges, translated into trees, from About Trees].

Speculative short stories realized as ornamental thickets in the backyards of arboreally inclined landowners.

Given all the urban parks, hedge mazes, and scientifically accurate themed gardens of the world—two of my favorites being the exquisite Silver Garden at Longwood Gardens and the scifi otherworldliness of the Desert Garden at the Huntington—surely there is room for a kind of translation landscape?

Stories and fables—koans, slogans, poems, wisecracks—planted as cryptoforests, literary labyrinths you could somehow, impossibly, read provided you know what each species is meant to signify.

Just take Holten’s typeface as a new kind of planting guide, and see what landscapes might result.

[Image: From About Trees].

Holten’s About Trees is available for purchase, of course, if you want to check it out; in the meantime, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that someone actually implements a typographic grove somewhere, a planted language of texts flipped into readable tree-signs, sequenced using the font from About Trees.

In fact, recall the myth of Odin discovering the Nordic runes: hanging upside-down from a tree and mistaking, in the especially complicated carpet of roots sprawled out beneath him, the beginnings of a new typeface, an arboreal symbol system that could be written down and shared with others. Runes came from roots—and, as Holten implies, every tree contains a library.


[Image: From “Means to an End” by Dillon Marsh].

There are a few projects by the young South African photographer Dillon Marsh that seem worth a look.

[Image: From “Means to an End” by Dillon Marsh].

The first are his photos of “electricity pylons… criss-crossing the landscape around the city of Cape Town,” called “Means to an End.”

[Image: From “Means to an End” by Dillon Marsh].

Marsh is by no means the first photographer, artist, writer, architect, etc., to look at electricity pylons, but the resulting images are pretty stunning.

Meanwhile, Marsh has a variety of other series available for view on his website, but another one I want to feature briefly here is called “Limbo.”

[Image: From “Limbo” by Dillon Marsh].

In Marsh’s own words, “‘Limbo‘ is a series of photographs showing trees that have died, but not yet fallen. All these trees were photographed in various suburbs of the Cape Flats area of Cape Town, including Bridgetown, Bonteheuwel, Ruyterwacht, Windermere, and The Hague.”

The results perhaps recall the “Rise” filter, as well as the square format of Instagram, but, for me, that doesn’t take away from their visual or conceptual interest.

[Images: From “Limbo” by Dillon Marsh].

Oddly, these actually remind me of the trees in Hackney, a borough of London where I briefly lived more than a decade ago; the branches of almost every tree along the streets that I walked each morning to the local bus stop had been cut—or hacked, as it were—by the Council, apparently out of a mathematically impossible fear of liability should the branches someday fall and hit a car, a pedestrian, or a baby in a stroller, lending the neighborhood an even drearier feel of grey-skied Gothic horror than it would have had already on its own.

[Images: From “Limbo” by Dillon Marsh].

Somewhere between portraits and landscape photography, these two projects of Marsh’s go well together, depicting the starkly exposed branching peculiar to these two types of structures.

They are also both in Marsh’s “Landscape Series” of photographs, a series that, in his words, seeks “to find things that are out of the ordinary, picking them out of the landscape where they might otherwise blend in. I choose objects that can be found in multitude within their environment so that I can depict a family of objects in a series of photographs. By displaying each project as such, I feel I am able to show both the character of the individual members, and the characteristics that make these objects a family.”

I’ll do one more quick post about Marsh’s work, showing my favorite series of all.