First-Strike Reforestation

Earlier this month, Macleans looked at the idea of “aerial reforestation,” or the large-scale dropping of tree seedlings using decommissioned military aircraft. Of course, we looked at this same plan many, many years ago—and it turns out the same guy is behind this latest round of journalistic interest.

[Image: Courtesy of Getty Images/Macleans].

Moshe Alamaro, still affiliated with MIT, had previously been pushing his plan for “using a small fertilizing plane to drop saplings in plastic pods one at a time from a hopper,” Macleans explains. The biodegradable canisters would then have “hit the ground at 200 m.p.h.,” MIT explained back in 1997, “and imbed themselves in the soil. Then the canisters decompose and the young trees take root. A large aircraft could drop as many as 100,000 saplings in a single flight: Alamaro’s system could plant as many as a million trees in one day.”

But, Macleans points out, “it wasn’t very fruitful—most pods hit debris during pilot tests and failed to actually take root.”

The idea has thus now been “upgraded,” using different technical means “to create new forests on empty landscapes.”

The process Alamaro advocates places trees in metal pods that rot on contact with the ground, instead of the low-tech and less sturdy plastic version. He says the process can be adapted to plant shrubs, and would work best in places with clear, loose soil, such as sub-desert parts of the Middle East, or newly habitable Arctic tundra opened up by global warming. “What is needed is government policy to use old military aircraft,” he says, adding that thousands are in hangars across the globe. Although the original pitch failed, Alamaro says the growing carbon market is creating new interest, and he hopes to find funding for a large-scale pilot project soon. Once Alamaro gets planes in the air, the last step, says [Dennis Bendickson, professor of forestry], will be to simply “get people out of the way.”

In this context, it’s difficult to resist pointing out Iceland’s own soil-bombing campaign: “Iceland is big and sparsely populated,” the BBC reported in 2005. “There are few roads. So, Icelanders decided to ‘bomb their own country’,” dropping special mixtures of fertiliser and seeds “from a WWII DC 3 Dakota”—carpet-bombing subarctic desert in an attempt to make that emptiness flower.

I feel compelled here to point out a brief scene from the film Hellboy 2, in which we see a “forest god” killed in the streets of Brooklyn (roughly 2:36 in this clip); his green and bubbling blood blooms instantly into a carpet of soft roots and lichen, splashing onto the roofs of cars, sending seedpods from wildflowers and pollinating plants down in drifts along the New York sidewalks. Should a substance that fertile be developed in real life, Alamaro’s—and Iceland’s—plans could be realized in the blink of an eye.

In any case, will Alamaro finally succeed? Will we see whole new woodsy landscapes grow in the wake of sustained rural bombing campaigns—druidic warfare—cryptoforests spreading out from craters and abandoned fields far below? Will we launch seed grenades from sapling artillery, plant improvised explosive devices packed dense with forest nutrients?

(Story found via @treestrategist).

The Reforestation of the Thames Estuary

[Image: “The Dormant Workshop” by Tom Noonan, courtesy of the architect].

While studying at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, recent graduate Tom Noonan produced a series of variably-sized hand-drawings to illustrate a fictional reforestation of the Thames estuary.

[Image: “Log Harvest 2041” by Tom Noonan, courtesy of the architect].

Stewarding, but also openly capitalizing on, this return of woodsy nature is the John Evelyn Institute of Arboreal Science, an imaginary trade organization (of which we will read more, below).

[Image: “Reforestation of the Thames Estuary” by Tom Noonan, courtesy of the architect].

The urban scenario thus outlined—imagining a “future timber and plantation industry” stretching “throughout London, and beyond”—is like something out of Roger Deakin’s extraordinary book Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees (previously described here) or even After London by Richard Jeffreys.

In that latter book, Jeffreys describes a thoroughly post-human London, as the ruined city is reconquered by forests, mudflats, aquatic grasses, and wild animals: “From an elevation, therefore,” Jeffreys writes, “there was nothing visible but endless forest and marsh. On the level ground and plains the view was limited to a short distance, because of the thickets and the saplings which had now become young trees… By degrees the trees of the vale seemed as it were to invade and march up the hills, and, as we see in our time, in many places the downs are hidden altogether with a stunted kind of forest.”

Noonan, in a clearly more domesticated sense—and it would have been interesting to see a more ambitious reforestation of all of southeast England in these images—has illustrated an economically useful version of Jeffreys’s eco-prophetic tale.

[Image: “Lecture Preparations” by Tom Noonan, courtesy of the architect].

From Noonan’s own project description:

The reforestation of the Thames Estuary sees the transformation of a city and its environment, in a future where timber is to become the City’s main building resource. Forests and plantations established around the Thames Estuary provide the source for the world’s only truly renewable building material. The river Thames once again becomes a working river, transporting timber throughout the city.

It is within these economic circumstances that the John Evelyn Institute of Arboreal Science can establish itself, Noonan suggests:

The John Evelyn Institute of Arboreal Scienc eat Deptford is the hub of this new industry. It is a centre for the development and promotion of the use of timber in the construction of London’s future architecture. Its primary aim is to reintroduce wood as a prominent material in construction. Through research, exploration and experimentation the Institute attempts to raise the visibility of wood for architects, engineers, the rest of the construction industry and public alike. Alongside programmes of education and learning, the landscape of the Institute houses the infrastructure required for the timber industry.

They are similar to an organization like a cross between TRADA and the Wooodland Trust, say.

[Image: “Urban Nature” by Tom Noonan, courtesy of the architect].

And the Institute requires, of course, its own architectural HQ.

[Image: “Timber Craft Workshop” by Tom Noonan, courtesy of the architect].

Noonan provides that, as well. He describes the Institute as “a landscape connecting Deptford with the river,” not quite a building at all. It is an “architecture that does not conform to the urban timeframe. Rather, its form and occupation is dependent on the cycles of nature.”

The architecture is created slowly—its first years devoid of great activity, as plantations mature. The undercroft of the landscape is used for education and administration. The landscape above becomes an extension of the river bank, returning the privatised spaces of the Thames to the public realm. Gaps and cuts into the landscape offer glimpses into the monumental storage halls and workshops below, which eagerly anticipate the first log harvest. 2041 sees the arrival of the first harvest. The landscape and river burst in a flurry of theatrical activity, reminiscent of centuries before. As the plantations grow and spread, new architectures, infrastructures and environments arise throughout London and the banks of the Thames, and beyond.

The drawings are extraordinary, and worth exploring in more detail, and—while Noonan’s vision of London transformed into a working forest plantation would have benefitted from some additional documentation, such as maps*—it is a delirious one.

[Image: “Thames Revival” by Tom Noonan, courtesy of the architect].

Considering the ongoing overdose of urban agriculture imagery passing through the architecture world these days, it is refreshing simply to see someone hit a slightly different note: to explore urban forestry in an aesthetically powerful way and to envision a world in which the future structural promise of cultivated plantlife comes to shape the city.

*I wrote this without realizing that the package of images sent to me did not include the entire project—which comes complete with maps.

Crypto-Forestry and the Return of the Repressed

[Image: My own “crypto-forest of Utrecht,” via Google Maps].

While we’re on the subject of PrimatePoetics!, I’m intrigued by their “CryptoForests of Utrechtseries, which kicked off back in October 2009. It’s an ongoing exploration of botanical landscapes in and around Utrecht, Netherlands, that have sprung back from aggressive anthropological intervention. Weed patches in which the earliest emergent traces of a thicket can be found; clusters of trees growing semi-feral on the edges of railroad yards; forgotten courtyards sprouting with random saplings unplanted by any hand: these are all crypto-forests.

Each example of this type of landscape, PrimatePoetics! explains, is “almost entirely hidden from view and very few people know about it.” Each is “a forest grown in the shadow of neglect, private ownership and municipal refusal.” Each is a landscape that has been “left to fallow” but then spurts back in spikes of weedy regrowth, becoming “unnoteworthy from all angles, but pretty large when you are inside it.”

All of them together would make an amazing travel guide or landscape pamphlet—a short tour through minor quasi-forests around the city of Utrecht (or elsewhere). I’m tempted to launch a global “crypto-forestry” group on Flickr for documenting exactly this sort of thing—in fact, I’ve gone ahead and done so. Feel free to contribute, if you’re in the mood, burgeoning scholars of urban weeds. Photographic documents of minor landscapes on the rebound; urban forests in their earliest, stunted stage; insurgent fringes of suburbia coming back to vitality; derelict groves extending underground roots. The return of the botanical repressed.

The Duplicative Forest

Atlas Obscura points our attention to a site in Oregon known as the “duplicative forest.”

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

The poplar trees growing at this 17,000-acre farm are “all the same height and thickness,” we read, “and 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.”

While this latter comment is clearly a joke, it would actually be quite interesting to see if optical regulations are ever needed for the spacing of roadside objects. If, for instance, the Duplicative Forest really did induce seizures in motorists—but only those driving more than 90 mph, say—thus exhibiting neurological effects, what sorts of spatial rules might need to be implemented? Every sixth tree could be planted off-grid, for instance, in a slight stagger away from the otherwise mesmerizing patterns, or the speed limit could be rigorously enforced using bumps—in which case you would know that, just over the horizon of your car’s speedometer, a strange world of neurobiological self-interference looms, as the world around you threatens cognitive failure in those passing through it at a high enough speed or intensity.

Want to find out for yourself? Consider doing a drive-by.

On an only vaguely related note, meanwhile, fans of Fredric Jameson might recall his spatial analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s absolutely excellent film North by Northwest—specifically Hitchcock’s use of rhythmically placed, identical trees.

Three Trees

1) And then there was computational wood.

For his master’s thesis, produced last year under the direction of Timo Arnall, Matt Jones, Jack Schulze, Lennart Andersson, and Mikael Wiberg, designer Matt Cottam directed this short video about a technique for growing electrical circuitry inside the trunks of living trees. Just inject the right trace metals, Cottam’s mad scientist narrator explains, do some more techno-magic, and simply let the wood grow…

If only it were true. But the day will come, my t-shirt will read, when all the trees around us are computers.

2) While researching blackouts for a seminar I am teaching this winter at Pratt, I stumbled on a strange anecdote from The New York Times, published back in 1986, about a plant physiologist at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden who was seeking a way to end the risk of “trees crashing down on power lines” (a major source of power interruptions).


[Images: All photos by Adam Ryder, from On the Grid].

“One of the things we’re looking at,” the scientist explained, “is something that will directly retard the growth of trees”—that is, chemicals “that interfere with the basic growth hormones.” He was trying to develop, he adds, “a mild chemical” that would deliberately slow tree growth, “and instead of spraying we’re injecting [it] directly into the tree.”

Who knows where that research has now led them, twenty-four years later, but I’d suggest someone might want to mail them a copy of The Death of Grass. ASAP.


[Image: A fig tree grows in Los Angeles; photo by Pieter Severynen].

3) While going back through old bookmarks this morning, I rediscovered Tree of the Week, a series of articles run by the Los Angeles Times. The overall project could be described as a botanical cartography of the city: a catalog of Angeleno trees.

This week’s tree is the “highly productive fig“; last week’s was the Blackwood Acacia. With regard to the latter tree, Pieter Severynen, the series author, writes: “Given its negative properties it should be clear that a description of this tree, or for that matter any tree of the week, does not imply an endorsement to plant. Instead it is offered as a means to learn more about the existing trees that make up the fascinating urban forest surrounding us in the Southland.”

The “fascinating urban forest surrounding us in the Southland” includes the Weltwitschia, the “picturesque Aleppo pine,” and, of course, among many others, the apple, a tree genetically sculpted over the millennia through “hundreds of accidental and deliberate cross-hybridizations” around the world, Severynen writes.

Anyone interested in exploring the urban forests of Los Angeles would do well to check out the fruit maps of Fallen Fruit, who have discovered in the seemingly random dispersal of fruit trees around Silver Lake the remnant outlines of long-forgotten orchards; but if your curiosity goes further afield than L.A., the absolutely fantastic book Wildwood, by the late Roger Deakin, has truly unforgettable descriptions of walnut harvesting in Kazakhstan, old-growth Eastern European forests filled with war ruins and shrapnel, and Deakin’s own backyard in England. It is often astonishingly beautiful—and it also Deakin’s last major work.

The Tree Museum

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley.

Every tree is a living archive, its rings a record of rainfall, temperature, atmosphere, fire, volcanic eruption, and even solar activity. These arboreal archives together reach back in time over centuries, sometimes millennia. We can even map human history through them—and onto them—tracing famines, plagues, and the passing of our own lives.

[Image: A scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo, with Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in Muir Woods, outside San Francisco, where Novak points to the concentric rings of the redwood trunk and says, “Here I was born… and here I died”].

For artist Katie Holten, trees were thus the natural starting point for an oral history of a city street in the Bronx. To mark the 100th anniversary of the Grand Concourse, a four-mile-long boulevard that connects Manhattan to the parks of the Northern Bronx, Holten has created the Tree Museum: 100 specially-chosen trees between 138th Street and Mosholu Parkway, each of which has a story to tell if you dial the number at its base.

The museum opens today, June 21, with a parade and street fair: for those of us not in New York, a podcast and brochure will be available for download, and you also can view each of the tree locations on Google Maps.

[Image: Trees in the museum each have their own sidewalk marker, which gives their name and extension number].

Only a handful of the one hundred “story-trees” date from the Concourse’s construction, when an avenue of Norwegian maples was planted to shade carriages and pedestrians strolling along the broad boulevard. In an email conversation, Holten explained to BLDGBLOG that most of these original trees were moved to Pelham Bay Park when the B/D subway line was built in the early ’30s. Twelve of the surviving maples are joined in the Tree Museum by representatives of fifty-nine other tree species, from an Amur Corktree in Joyce Kilmer park to a Kentucky Coffeetree just south of Tremont Avenue.

In fact, each tree is carefully identified by its species name, in Spanish, English, and Latin, to draw museum visitors’ attention to their variety. Holten told me that, early on in her community outreach, she realized how important naming the trees would be when a teacher in a local school confessed, incredibly, that it was only after he heard about the Tree Museum idea that “he noticed the next time he was walking that there were different kinds of trees. Before that he’d thought they were just ‘trees’.”

[Image: A section of the Tree Museum map; a much larger version can be seen here].

The trees were chosen for their variety, Holten says, but also for “location, age, and connection to a particular person or story.” Holten acted as matchmaker, pairing trees with former and current Bronx residents, as well as scientists, authors, and activists who have worked in the area. Among the 100 participants are well-known former Bronxites DJ Jazzy Jay and Daniel Libeskind, students at the Bronx Writing Academy, and Jonathan Pywell, Bronx Senior Forester, who helped Holten identify all the trees (not an easy task in mid-winter). Each has used their tree as the starting point for a personal anecdote, snippet of neighborhood history, song, or even a digital sound recording.

Taken together, the tree stories are part shared history, part personal memory, part science lesson—they form what Holten describes as “the whole ecosystem of the street.”

[Image: A computer-generated image of Klaus Lackner’s prototype “synthetic tree,” which would remove carbon dioxide directly from the air; image courtesy of Columbia University].

In her email, Holten went into some detail describing the range of stories you can hear as you dial each tree’s extension, from the sound of a Puerto Rican tree frog (No.73, a Gingko) to a local preservationist describing how he fought to turn an abandoned lot into the park that now surrounds No. 100, a Cottonwood. From her email:

Klaus Lackner (professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering at Columbia University and director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy) tells the story of the carbon cycle and his attempt to create a “fake plastic tree,” or air extractor, that would suck the CO2 out of the air and convert it into something we can put in a safe place. Eric Sanderson (a landscape ecologist based at the Bronx Zoo, and author of Mannahatta) needed a really old, native tree to talk about projecting the landscape backwards. I gave him No. 9, a beautiful American Elm outside Cardinal Hayes High School.

At the northern end of the Concourse, at 206th St, there’s a huge chunk of rock between two buildings; it’s like the side of a cliff. I had to give the tree there, No. 95, to Sid Horenstein, a geologist who recently retired from the American Museum of Natural History. He’s able to use the rock outcrop to explain the story of what the Concourse lies above—it was built on a ridge and that’s one of the main reasons the street was constructed here, because it was elevated and offered spectacular views of the countryside all around.

And Tree No. 45, a Little Leaf Linden, has a story told by Patricia Foody, a 95-year-old Bronxite. She remembers her dad bringing her for a walk to the Concourse to visit his brother’s tree in just this location—it was one of the original maples, and many of them had plaques for soldiers who had died in World War I.

Some of the stories come from people who work with the trees directly: Jennifer Greenfeld, director of Street Tree Planting for the Parks and Recreation department, uses No. 66, a Chinese Elm, to provide an overview of street trees throughout New York City and the policy battles they sometimes cause. Barbara Barnes, a landscape architect also with the Parks department, puts her tree in the context of the historic street tree canopy project she’s working on, to replant Joyce Kilmer and Franz Sigel parks as they were originally laid out.

[Image: Eric Sanderson pointing at a map of the Bronx; photo by Katie Holten].

For other participants, the trees function as more of a backdrop for personal history and community activism. Sabrina Cardenales is the real-life model for the character Mercedes in Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, which documents extreme urban poverty in New York: both Sabrina and Adrian introduce themselves and read a passage from the book as part of the Tree Museum. Meanwhile, Majora Carter, an environmental justice activist and MacArthur fellow from the south Bronx, uses tree No. 6, a honey locust, to tell people: “You don’t have to leave your neighborhood to live in a better one, and trees are an important part of making that happen.”

The variety of voices and stories Holten describes accumulate into a sense that plenty of people really do care about these trees, this street, and the Bronx in general. They also act as a series of nudges to look at the urban landscape in a new light. The result is that the Tree Museum, at least in theory, will recreate some of the optimism of the Grand Concourse’s roots in the City Beautiful movement, while not glossing over the struggles and setbacks faced by the “Champs-Élysées of the Bronx” ever since.

[Image: The Bronx Grand Concourse, looking north from 161st Street; photo by Katie Holten].

As part of the Concourse’s centenary celebrations, the Bronx Museum and New York’s Design Trust For Public Space are running a competition called Intersections: Grand Concourse Beyond 100, to gather new proposals for regenerating the street. Although the call for entries period is now closed, Katie Holten has set up a community forum for the Tree Museum, and clearly hopes the project will prompt action, as well as reflection.

Holten explains her most basic hope, which is that the Museum will encourage people to start using and enjoying their shared public space again:

One hundred years ago the Concourse was built for people to stroll along, under the shade of the trees, but in 2009 it takes quite an effort to get people out for a walk—hopefully we’ll get them strolling! There are a number of individuals who I met because they are interested in trees, or in “green” issues, and we’ve tried to use the momentum of the Tree Museum to help them make differences. For example, Fernando Tirado (tree No. 88) is district manager for Bronx Community Board #7 and he’s been prompted to establish a “Greening the Concourse” project. He’s organizing summer internships for youth in the area: giving them a job and training, and at the same time actually greening the street.

Perhaps more importantly, Holten’s Tree Museum (which she describes as “practically invisible—it’s part of the urban fabric”) demonstrates an intriguing way to re-imagine the landscape: finding ways to make the hidden layers and connections of a street’s story visible (or audible) might ultimately be as, if not more, important than installing a new swing set in the park.

[Previous guest posts by Nicola Twilley include Watershed Down, The Water Menu, Atmospheric Intoxication, and Park Stories].

Tree bombs

Two earlier posts here have strangely merged in real life: while we were off soil-bombing Iceland, MIT’s Moshe Alamaro – of the famed anti-hurricane jet engine barges – was strafing the earth with tree seeds. It’s called “aerial reforestation.”

Back in 1997, Alamaro “designed conical canisters, of a starchy biodegradable material, which each contain a seedling packed in soil and nutrients. The canisters are dropped from a low-flying plane, so that they hit the ground at 200 m.p.h., and imbed themselves in the soil. Then the canisters decompose and the young trees take root. A large aircraft could drop as many as 100,000 saplings in a single flight: Alamaro’s system could plant as many as a million trees in one day.”

Whole forests, fired from F-16s. Stealth forestry.


Or, branching off from an earlier comment on the agri-militaristic possibilities of garden wars (“hotheaded dictators and war-time presidents decide to take turns garden-bombing each other” [see comments]), you’d get forest wars, landscape design by Cruise missile: launched from a ship in the Indian Ocean, soon there are rich deciduous forests in the hills of Afghanistan.


Aspen trees. Precision Seedlings®. Bunker busters dropped into the San Andreas fault, where genetically engineered redwood saplings grow so deep they knit the faultline back together…

Riot police discard their plastic bullets and tear gas canisters to fire baby tulip bulbs; you go home and flowers are growing from your wounds… All scars become gardens…

Or on CNN some morning we see ICBMs arcing out of the mid-Atlantic, submarine crews cheering, the hunt for a truly red October now over: new maple tree saplings have been fired – they are reforesting the eastern Canadian plateau –

Or it’s a threat: disarm – or we will reforest you… Using tree bombs…