Check the Sonic

[Image: From episode 9 of Patriot, courtesy Amazon Studios.]

This is incredibly random, and is perhaps indisputable evidence that I have fallen head over heels for mourning doves, but I’ve begun noticing, in the backgrounds of various films and TV shows, when mourning doves can be heard cooing—for example, in the new Doug Liman film, Locked Down, there is at least one scene where you can clearly hear a mourning dove singing in a London street.

Recall those recent acoustic studies of cities during the coronavirus lockdown that showed that, among other things, birds no longer had to struggle to be heard over the relentless noise of cars and industrial activity.

The Locked Down mourning dove was presumably a beneficiary of this larger acoustic change—yet it will never know it’s now an international celebrity! Maybe, if you live in London, you’ve even heard the same bird.

[Image: From episode 9 of Patriot, courtesy Amazon Studios.]

On the flipside of this, however, I was watching episode 9 of Amazon’s show Patriot the other night when I noticed the call of a Eurasian collared dove somewhere in the background, cooing in the woods. If the fictional setting of that scene is also where it was filmed, then this means Eurasian collared doves are alive and well in the forests of Wisconsin—an absurdly uninteresting point to raise if not for the fact that those doves are an introduced, invasive species.

It occurred to me, then, that you could potentially track invasive species—birds, insects, plants—by way of their unacknowledged appearance in the backgrounds of international film and TV projects.

Think of the scene in W. G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, where a character freezes a video and zooms in on a woman just barely visible in the background, concluding that he is, in fact, looking at the face of his own long-lost mother—indeed the only image he now has of her, this fleeting appearance in the shadows of a film that was actually about something else entirely.

Now imagine that on the scale of an entire ecosystem: a rarely seen bird flashes by behind a character in a blur of color and song, a single tree in a clearing beside two actors, its presence there indicating previously unnoticed changes in soil alkalinity or regional temperatures.

In other words, you could map the spread of invasive species, not to mention the effects of climate change, by noting what creatures pop up, however briefly, in the background of films shot in ecologically transitional regions of the world—an archive of climate effects and landscape futures hiding in plain sight, waiting to be noticed by the right researcher.

[Note: If you’re now desperate to see pictures of mourning doves, I’ve got you covered.]

Forest Accumulator

Ten years ago, this would have been a speculative design project by Sascha Pohflepp: “hyper-accumulating” plants are being used to concentrate, and thus “mine,” valuable metals from soil.

[Image: Nickel-rich sap; photo by Antony van der Ent, courtesy New York Times.]

“With roots that act practically like magnets, these organisms—about 700 are known—flourish in metal-rich soils that make hundreds of thousands of other plant species flee or die,” the New York Times reported last week. “Slicing open one of these trees or running the leaves of its bush cousin through a peanut press produces a sap that oozes a neon blue-green. This ‘juice’ is actually one-quarter nickel, far more concentrated than the ore feeding the world’s nickel smelters.”

A while back, I went on a road-trip with Edible Geography to visit some maple syrup farms north of where we lived at the time, in New York City. The woods all around us were tubed together in a huge, tree-spanning network—“forest hydraulics,” as Edible Geography phrased it at the time—as the trees’ valuable liquid slowly flowed toward a pumping station in the center of the forest.

It was part labyrinth, part spiderweb, a kind of semi-automated tree-machine at odds with the image of nature with which most maple syrup is sold.

[Images: Photos by BLDGBLOG.]

Imagining a similar landscape, but one designed as a kind of botanical mine—a forest accumulator, metallurgical druidry—is incredible.

And it’s not even a modern idea, as the New York Times points out. For all its apparent, 21st-century sci-fi, the idea of harvesting metal from plants is at least half a millennium old: “The father of modern mineral smelting, Georgius Agricola, saw this potential 500 years ago. He smelted plants in his free time. If you knew what to look for in a leaf, he wrote in the 16th century, you could deduce which metals lay in the ground below.”

This brings to mind an older post here about detection landscapes, or landscapes—yards, meadows, gardens, forests—deliberately planted with species that can indicate what is in the soil beneath them.

In the specific case of that post, this had archaeological value, allowing researchers to find abandoned Viking settlements in Greenland based on slight chemical changes that have affected which plants are able to thrive. Certain patches of flower, for example, act as archaeological indicator species, marking the locations of lost settlements.

In any case, my point is simply that vegetation can be read, or treated as a sign to be interpreted, whether by indicating the presence of archaeological ruins or by revealing the potential market-value of a site’s subterranean metal content.

Indeed, we read, “This vegetation could be the world’s most efficient, solar-powered mineral smelters,” with “the additional value of enabling areas with toxic soils to be made productive. Smallholding farmers could grow on metal-rich soils, and mining companies might use these plants to clean up their former mines and waste and even collect some revenue.” That is, you could filter and clean contaminated soils by drawing heavy-metal pollutants out of the ground, producing saps that are later harvested.

Fast-forward ten years: it’s 2030 and landscape architecture studios around the world are filled with speculative metal-harvesting plant designs—contaminated landscapes laced with gardens of hardy, sap-producing trees—even as industrial behemoths, like Rio Tinto and Barrick Gold, are breeding proprietary tree species in top-secret labs, genetically modifying them to maximize metal uptake.

Weird saps accumulate in iridescent lagoons. Autumn leaves glint, literally metallic, in the sun. Tiny metal capillaries weave up the trunks of black-wooded trees, in filigrees of gold and silver. The occasional forest fire smells not of smoke, but of copper and tin. Reclaimed timber, with knots and veins partially metallized, is used as luxury flooring in suburban homes.

Read more at the New York Times.

(Thanks to Wayne Chambliss for the tip!)


[Image: Photo by Charles Ray, via the New York Times].

Apparently, dystopian near-future climate change fiction doesn’t have enough wasps. When a colony survives one year to the next, due to a mild winter, its nest “can grow to be as big as a Volkswagen Beetle and can have 15,000 wasps.”

In a regular year in the U.S. state of Alabama, for example, there are apparently only two or three such “super nests,” but, according to an entomologist interviewed by the New York Times, in 2019 there could be as many as ninety.

First of all, it’s weirdly fascinating to learn that there is an official tally of super nests at all, let alone that there might be as many as 90 of them in Alabama alone.

However, what’s more striking, at least for me, is that the scenes depicted in this brief New York Times piece read more like something from a Cormac McCarthy novel. One man didn’t enter his outdoor toolshed for two months only to discover that it now housed a sprawling super nest housing as many as 18,000 wasps; he and his son still scurry past it now and again as they grab tools, unsure of how exactly to eliminate the threat.

It’s like Alien meets The Road: unwary climate refugees of the near-future hike through the forests of a superheated American South, unbeknownst to them approaching a super nest the size of a train yard, its buzzing mistaken for the hopeful drone of distant machinery.

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.)

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.)

Opens Coat, Flashes Links

[Image: The “former constellation” Argo Navis, via Wikipedia].

Taps mic… Is this thing still on…

1. Hidden Charms was a conference on “the magical protection of buildings,” organized by Brian Hoggard. The one-day symposium looked at everything from ritual “protection marks” to dead cats stored in glass jars, put there “to keep the witches away.”

2. Amazon wants to put robots in every home. “The retail and cloud computing giant has embarked on an ambitious, top-secret plan to build a domestic robot, according to people familiar with the plans. Codenamed ‘Vesta,’ after the Roman goddess of the hearth, home and family,” the robot “could be a sort of mobile Alexa,” Businessweek speculates, “accompanying customers in parts of their home where they don’t have Echo devices. Prototypes of the robots have advanced cameras and computer vision software and can navigate through homes like a self-driving car.”

3. A woman in Austin, Texas, went missing in 2015. Without monthly payments, her house was eventually seized and sold by the bank—but the home’s new owners found the skeletal remains of a body inside one of the walls back in March. It was the missing woman. “In the attic, there was a broken board that led down to the space” where the skeleton was found, a coroner’s spokesperson explained. “Law enforcement thinks she may have been up in the attic and fell through the attic floor.” Horrifically, whether she was killed by the fall or remained alive, trapped inside the wall, is unclear.

4. At an event here in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, artist and writer Julia Christensen drew my attention to officially recognized “former constellations,” or named star groups that are no longer considered referentially viable.

5. The Roman monetary system left a planetary-archaeological trace in Greenland’s ice sheet, according to Rob Meyer of The Atlantic. “A team of archaeologists, historians, and climate scientists have constructed a history of Rome’s lead pollution,” Meyer explains, “which allows them to approximate Mediterranean economic activity from 1,100 b.c. to 800 a.d. They found it hiding thousands of miles from the Roman Forum: deep in the Greenland Ice Sheet, the enormous, miles-thick plate of ice that entombs the North Atlantic island.” With this data, they have “reconstructed year-by-year economic data documenting the rise and fall of the Roman Republic and Empire.” Oddly enough, this means the Greenland Ice Sheet is a landscape-scale archive of Roman financial data.

6. Speaking of economic data mined from indirect sources, “satellite imagery that tracks changes in the level of nighttime lighting within and between countries over time” might also reveal whether countries are lying about the strengths of their economies. According to researcher Luis R. Martinez, “increases in nighttime lighting generally track with increases in GDP,” and this becomes of interest when lighting levels don’t correspond with officially given numbers. Of course, this is not the first time that satellite imagery has been used to estimate economic data.

7. “Today our experience of the night differs significantly from that of our ancestors,” Nancy Gonlin and April Nowell write for Sapiens. “Before they mastered fire, early humans lived roughly half their lives in the dark.” Cue the rise of “archaeological inquiries into the night,” or what Gonlin and Nowell have evocatively named the “archaeology of night.”

8. There was an amazing article by Jake Halpern published in The New Yorker two years ago about Nazi gold fever in Poland and the incredible amount of amateur detective operations there dedicated to finding an alleged buried fortune. It’s a wild mix of abandoned WWII bunkers, secret underground cities in the forest, and urban legends of untold wealth. It turns out, however, there is a (vaguely) similar obsession with lost or buried gold in northwestern Pennsylvania: “For decades, treasure hunters in Pennsylvania have suspected that there is a trove of Civil War gold lost in a rural forest in the northwestern part of the state,” the New York Times reports. “The story of the gold bars was pieced together from old documents, a map and even a mysterious note found decades ago in a hiding place on the back of a bed post in Caledonia,” the paper explains.

9. People are drawn to forests for all sorts of reasons. As Alex Mar wrote last autumn for the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Slender Man phenomenon—that inspired two young girls to try to murder a classmate—also had a forest element. “Girls lured out into the dark woods—this is the stuff of folk tales from so many countries,” Mar writes, “a New World fear of the Puritans, an image at the heart of witchcraft and the occult, timeless.” Mar points out that, after the attempted murder, the two girls began heading “to Wisconsin’s Nicolet National Forest on foot, nearly 200 miles north. They were convinced that, once there, if they pushed farther and farther into the nearly 700,000-acre forest, they would find the mansion in which their monster [Slender Man] dwells and he would welcome them.” The whole article is an interesting look at childhood, folklore, and the sometimes dark allure of the wild.

10. More treasure hunts: is there a cache of buried armaments, stolen from a National Guard armory in 1970, hidden somewhere in Amesbury, Massachusetts? According to a commenter on the Cast Boolits forum, William Gilday, who once “led an assault on a National Guard armory in Newburyport” and who spent nearly half of his life in prison for killing a police officer, confessed on his death bed that he buried guns and ammunition stolen from the armory somewhere in his hometown of Amesbury. “It’s one of those ‘what if’ things,” the commenter continues. “I’ve known about the confession for years, and I walk my dog in the ‘suspected’ vicinity just about every day. The problem is that the ‘authorities’ claim that everything that was stolen was recovered. But, a few weeks ago, I emailed a local radio talk show host who was involved in the death bed confession and I asked her if she thought that stolen items really had been buried in my town and she replied, ‘Yes…do you know where they are?’”

11. “A dispute between Serbia and Kosovo has disrupted the electric power grid for most of the Continent, making certain kinds of clocks—many of those on ovens, in heating systems and on radios—run up to six minutes slow,” the New York Times reported back in March. “The fluctuation in the power supply is infinitesimally small—not nearly enough to make a meaningful difference for most powered devices—and if it were a brief disturbance, the effect on clocks might be too little to worry about.” But this six-minute lag is enough to cause subtle effects in people’s lives. A bad first novel could be written about slow clocks, distant political disputes, and some sort of disastrous event—a missed train, a skipped meeting—in the narrator’s personal life.

12. The above story reminds me of the suspicion last year that Russia was using some sort of large-scale GPS jamming device in the Black Sea. “Reports of satellite navigation problems in the Black Sea suggest that Russia may be testing a new system for spoofing GPS,” David Hambling reported for New Scientist. “This could be the first hint of a new form of electronic warfare available to everyone from rogue nation states to petty criminals.” The reason I say this is because you can easily imagine a scenario where someone is driving around, totally lost, receiving contradictory if not frankly nonsensical navigation instructions, and it’s because they are an unwitting, long-distance victim of geographic weaponry being used in a war zone far away.

13. The legendary music fest Sónar has been sending music to “a potentially habitable exoplanet” called GJ273b, attempting to contact alien intelligence with transmissions of electronic music. Transmission 1 was sent back in October; Transmission 2 ended today. The transmissions should arrive at the planet in November 2030.