Ground Conditioning

[Image: An abandoned golf course leaves traces in the landscape in northern Los Angeles].

Golf runs in my family, although I don’t seem to have inherited that gene; I was nonetheless interested to read about an air-conditioning network embedded in the ground itself at this year’s Masters Tournament, dehumidifying the course from below.

In an article called the “Weather Underground,” published in the May 2011 issue of Golf Digest, author David Owen describes something called the SubAir system. SubAir was invented in the 1990s by Marsh Benson, Owen explains, a senior grounds manager at August National. The first model consisted of “a stove-size machine,” as Owen describes it, that was “attached to the existing network of drainage pipes beneath the putting surface [where it] was acting like a giant Shop-Vac, hoovering moisture from below.”

A project director at SubAir explains to Owen that “the concept is to supply fresh air into the root zone and help provide a more optimal growing environment for the greens.” Indeed, as SubAir’s website explains:

The SubAir aeration and moisture removal system promotes healthier and stronger playing surfaces through moisture content management, subsurface aeration, and root zone temperature control. As a result, SubAir provides optimum aerobic subsurface growing conditions. SubAir is integrated underground with no impact on the golf course design options.

Further, “Since the SubAir system can be installed on a progressive basis, adding pieces incrementally makes putting together the SubAir puzzle easy and affordable.” This latter turn of phrase explains the company’s tagline: SubAir: Adding Pieces to the Puzzle.

Indeed, I have to assume, considering the system’s incremental expandability, that we will someday see a suburb somewhere—presumably on a golf course—where the SubAir system has been preemptively installed on every private lot, like any other utility, providing an electrically intensive drainage and lawn-management system for the entire neighborhood. Wired with terrestrial HVAC.

[Image: The system goes from suck to blow; images courtesy of SubAir].

At least two things immediately come to mind:

1) The “refrigerated beach” in Dubai that “will have a network of pipes beneath the sand containing a coolant that will absorb heat from the surface.” This self-parodically indulgent mechanism built on the scale of a landscape will ensure, as the Times explains, that “hotel guests can walk comfortably across the sand on scorching days.”

The management of terrain from below by subterranean machine-strata embedded in the earth itself is surely an extravagance whose accepted price of operation does not include its long-term environmental cost; but the vertiginous implications of being managed from below by unseen machinery even compels Owen, writing in Golf Digest, to joke that the world of golf is actually “a Matrix-like simulation created by green-jacketed aliens.” We could call it an encounter with the geological uncanny: an artificial stratigraphy that makes the earth itself into a manufactured object.

On the other hand, this verticalization of grounds-management strategies is no different, I would argue, from the massively horizontal sprawl of flood-control measures in the Netherlands, as but one example, with its Herculean gates, dikes, levees, and depolderized sacrifice zones, a protective network of unseen machines that makes that nation terrestrially possible.

Neither the Dutch water defense line nor SubAir is entirely sound, environmentally speaking; but my larger point is that if we would find ourselves outraged by one (SubAir) for its apparent extravagance, then we should not overlook the invisible systems on which our everyday landscapes already rely—the pumps that keep New York’s subways from flooding, the dams, canals, and levees that make New Orleans and Sacramento inhabitable, the aqueducts that feed Phoenix and Los Angeles, the South-North Water Transfer project, the Great Man-Made River of Libya—when we look for something to critique.

SubAir, in this context, is but one minor symptom of a larger, civilization-wide dependence on what we might call terrestrial life-support systems: machines actively and constantly re-formatting the surface of the planet for often fleeting human needs and desires.

[Image: A path originally meant to follow a now-abandoned golf course in northern Los Angeles].

2) Having said all that, I’m curious if SubAir could actually play a much more ambitious ecological role somewhere, whether that’s in forestry, gardening, brownfield remediation, wetlands management, or even in a partial automation of urban parks.

After all, if SubAir’s “aeration and moisture removal system promotes healthier and stronger [land surfaces] through moisture content management, subsurface aeration, and root zone temperature control,” and if, “as a result, SubAir provides optimum aerobic subsurface growing conditions,” then why not see what this might do for, say, indoor farms, recovering forests, or experimental gardens of a more botanically radical kind?

Imagine, for a minute, a SubAir system powered entirely by renewable energy, aerating, pressurizing, and vacuuming the soil from below in some highly engineered series of fields or enclosed growth chambers, producing the “optimum aerobic subsurface growing conditions” out of which specialty foods, medicines, or biofuels will emerge; what would the moral objection to such a system be, and how would this not simply be but one more device of environmental-conditioning grafted onto an already highly complex bundle of other such networks?

At the very least, I suppose, discovering that an otherwise pristine forest is actually being air-conditioned from below by a geographically extensive, underground air-plumbing network would induce a sense of terrestrial vertigo, as described above; ideally, it would also be working to encourage ecological health and self-repair.

(Thanks to Nick Sowers for pointing me to the Golf Digest article!)

3 thoughts on “Ground Conditioning”

  1. In ye olde days of lawn management, landscapers simply modified the soil so it naturally drained by mixing in sand and other porous materials. Or they chose a grass variety more suited to the soil and climate.

    I'd think that a network of underground tubes presents yet another maintenance challenge to replace the problems that it fixes.

  2. This post first got me thinking "what a waste of money" and "what about recycling the by products". But it's not a waste. For sport anything that improves your hobby/sport is not a waste of money and as for further uses here in England we have underground pipes transfering ground heat into homes. I guess its all progress.

  3. The SubAir dehumidifiers could also be used as an expensive, but potentially powerful, amplifier of standard subsurface drainage techniques that mitigate against mass wasting events. Reducing the moisture content of unconsolidated materials on a slope can dramatically improve the slope's overall cohesion. Wealthy hill- and cliff-top dwellers (who have a hard time getting landslide insurance, from what I understand) might be willing to pony up for the extra protection of their homes.

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