Prefigured Networks/Not a Metaphor: The Tree from Chaiten

When asked to contribute an item and text for the Cybernetics Library for a project called 'Field Re-Mediations' at the Queens Museum, I provided a photo (below) of a destroyed tree and a chunk of obsidian. 

This tree stump is located on the rim of an active volcano named Chaiten in Patagonia. It was not known to be a volcano by the contemporary residents until it erupted violently in 2008, prompting the largest evacuation in Chile's history. Upon closer examination, the Chaiten volcano has been nearly continuously active for the past 18,000 years. Resettlement of the town is still ongoing. My current archaeological fieldwork is at a prehistoric rock art cave under this volcano, which abuts a coastline that has witnessed massive sea level rise and tectonic uplift as well as frequent volcanic eruptions during the long span of human use of the landscape. Local residents hope to use the geological heritage represented by the volcano, contemporary ruins of houses destroyed by the 2008 eruption, and the rock art to create a sustainable economic base through tourism. The ruined houses, now conserved by a heritage foundation, are surrounded by new houses under construction. All are directly in the path of the past disaster as well as potential future ones.   

When I took this photo, I knew that I imagined it in black and white even while looking at the multichromatic environment; I was mentally referencing other photos as I chose my framing of the shot. I thought of Ansel Adams and his work with romanticized American landscapes. I thought of Frank Gohlke and his invocation of the sublime through photos of the destruction following the eruption of Mount St. Helens. I thought of Joseph Beuys and his admix of trees and volcanic materials in his work, 7000 Oaks.   

I asked Nick Mirzoeff, a leading figure in visual culture studies, to critique the photo and obsidian piece that I am contributing to accompany it. He responded,  

That’s a great photograph. It prefigures the failure of lived and mediated networks to sustain life in catastrophic conditions. Anthropogenic change appears without visible human agency and so it allows the recourse to the (‘Western’ aka colonial) comforts of the aesthetic. I’d use the obsidian as a black mirror to cut the photo to pieces, whether literally or metaphorically. But decolonization is not a metaphor.... 
— Nicholas Mirzoeff

Environmental disaster is also not a metaphor. We should probably cut this tree to pieces, though the volcano literally already did.  

photograph taken March 31, 2018 by Karen Holmberg and submitted for curation at the Queens Museum with a piece of obsidian (volcanic glass) 

photograph taken March 31, 2018 by Karen Holmberg and submitted for curation at the Queens Museum with a piece of obsidian (volcanic glass) 

The Vilcun caves and volcanic landscape of Chaiten, Chile: a transdisciplinary conservation study of coastal Patagonian archaeology and geoheritage

Human-environment intersections require investigation through research that is transdisciplinary and creative. While this has always been the case, our current context of anthropogenic climate change makes this even more imperative if we are to fully understand how the human present and future intersects with our past. The people who lived in coastal NW Patagonia experienced repeated explosive volcanic eruptions as well as a remarkable 60 m of sea level rise. My current research project, in its larger sense, looks at the past experience of dramatic climate changes and queries how they can inform our current perceptions of the changes we ourselves face. 

I am the Principal Investigator (PI) of a project that is funded by National Geographic (NGS-185C-18) to create the core unit of an ongoing, transdisciplinary team that contributes to the conservation of cultural heritage and geoheritage in Chaiten, northwestern Patagonia, as the town continues to recover from a volcanic eruption in 2008.  Our team began assembling on March 22, 2018, to begin fieldwork. 

In 2008, Chaitén Volcano in northwest Patagonia erupted unexpectedly and prompted the largest evacuation in Chile's history. Recovery from this eruption event is ongoing as residents resettle the town. ProCultura, a Chilean organization dedicated to promoting natural and cultural heritage, is  preserving a row of houses inundated and partially buried by re-mobilized ash and flooding caused  by the 2008 eruption. These houses and the conserved volcanic materials represent geoheritage (geological heritage) that can bolster sustainable tourism and provide local economic benefit. ProCultura encouraged our team's current fieldwork as a means to collect archaeological data that can encourage the conservation of a cave complex, Vilcún, which contains rock art (47 designs painted in red iron oxide; 9 excised designs), shell middens, ceramic and lithic material, faunal remains, and the remains of a child. Combined volcanic-archaeological sites are important draws for tourism globally, hence the linkage of the prehistoric caves and contemporary sites of volcanic disaster does have distinct possible financial benefits for the local community. Both the Vilcún caves and the conserved contemporary houses are already the target of vandalism, however, and without conservation measures they will be progressively compromised and disturbed.  

The similarity of Vilcún rock art designs interpreted as ‘vulvas’ to similar designs in the coastal area of Valdivia and the Mapuche indigenous culture area to the north also suggests ties to the larger region. Insufficient data exist currently, however, to determine how the Vilcún site intersects temporally with other sites in the region.  A single radiocarbon date of roughly 800 BP was obtained in 2012 by two of our team members in the only archaeological work conducted at the site. This date is relatively recent in comparison to the consensus that humans have occupied the south-central Andes for at least the past 15,000-18,000 years. Connection of the prehistoric Chaitén area to the larger region is indicated through the presence of the distinctive, translucent grey obsidian from Chaitén throughout the western archipelago. The Chaiten landscape, through its volcanic resources, has been utilized for a far deeper time period than the single radiocarbon date analyzed to date indicates. 

While the most recent eruption of Chaitén Volcano represents an important contemporary example of how eruptive activity can alter landscape and coastal use, volcanism is implicated in important transformations in the way people used and occupied the Patagonian landscape since at least the early Holocene. The work by one of our team members establishes a chronology of roughly 18,000 years of explosive eruptions in the Chaitén area. In this project we seek to combine these new volcanological data with improved archaeological data. With these combined sources of data we can potentially discern an older chronology for this site using tephrochronology and also begin to form a better idea of how volcanic events were perceived by prehistoric people. Images and imagination are an important component of this scientific goal, however, and we are incorporating innovative photography, videography, and acoustic capture into our project. 

Many residents of Chaitén who returned after the 2008 eruption lacked electricity or running water until 2012. Half the town still lacks these basic services in 2017. This project, while research and conservation motivated, is also explicitly invited by the municipality of Chaitén to aid them in developing sustainable economic opportunities through tourism.   

[photos below all by K. Holmberg unless noted]

Our fieldwork combines archaeology, volcanology, art, and an interest in the role of creativity and the past in contemporary and future contexts


as seen from the sea, which is how prehistoric visitors would have reached the Chaiten area


[photo credit: team member Brent Alloway]


as seen from Santa Barbara beach, where the government first considered resettling Chaiten's residents once the volcanic eruption ended (they instead opted to resettle the town's original location)

The entry to one of the caves, as seen from the inside


an example of incised rock art within the caves

an example of painted rock art within the caves


The town of Chaiten was evacuated when the volcano by the same name began erupting unexpectedly in 2008

a house buried within volcanic flows

a house, now preserved as a reminder of the eruption's impacts, filled with lahar flow

Listening to Physical Geology. PART 2: The ecopoetics of data, a few lessons from Björk

More drinks. This time in the midst of a madding crowd, soon after returning from Krakatau, with an Icelandic artist known as Shoflifter. She was wearing a remarkable head piece she humorously called a ‘brain catcher’. We were at the opening of the Björk show at the Museum of Modern Art and it was too crowded to see anything so I just drank and admired the brain catcher. I went back later to see the show. I went in the quiet before the crush of tourists to put on headphones and hear the biographical poetry that accompanied the material objects. I think the critics, universal in their evisceration of the show, may be a bit like archaeologists unable to see the important data in their spoil heap. The show wasn’t about the questionable directions of MoMA, its director, or contemporary art overall. The work itself, Björk’s work, was about the intimate and sometimes painful entanglement of human biographies and the physical planet. This seems outside of what critics can soundbite or archaeologists and geoscientists can quantify and yet it matters.


[This piece was an invited guest blog for Savage Minds. It again extols the importance of drinking with interesting people; lyrical data, ecopoetics, Bjork, and banging on rocks also included....]


An image I took at the universally panned Bjork show at MoMA. I like the way the geological and human are portrayed here and how they intersect visually with the book cover of The Man with the Compound Eyes in my prior post

Listening to Physical Geology. PART 1: Noise, disaster, and plastic thoughts

Over drinks with a seismologist, I recently learned that you can hear the ocean anywhere on the planet. Anywhere. Did you know that? No matter where you are mid-continent, as far as you can imagine from water, the rhythmic pulse of the ocean hitting the shore is present as ambient seismic noise. We can find the data hidden in the sound. It is an earthquake-free form of seismology. The seismic waves are named Love, which though taken from the surname of their discoverer seems as pleasurable as the strange and charming names of quarks to me. The focus on what was prior seen as background, insignificant, struck me in what the seismologist was doing. She found magic in what an archaeologist could have thrown out with the spoil heap were it material. Pay dirt from noise.  


[This piece was an invited guest post for Savage Minds. It is a short piece on the importance of drinking with interesting people, amidst a few other things....]

copses of corpses: uneasy synecdoche and nonhuman suffering of climate change

The suffering of trees suddenly bothers me. As a child, I had a close friendship with a tree. I did not anthropomorphize him in the least; he was already the cognizant creature he was, and I was honored he would listen to me. He never spoke back, mind you, but I knew he understood. We had different languages but communication, of course, is more than verbal. I would hug his trunk and feel a sense of calm after telling him my stories. I visited for many years after leaving home. We lost contact at some point as adult life took over my mind. More recently, I have written a grammar of trees drawing on random thoughts from other trees I’ve met. I suppose it’s an attempt to find a language that could allow me to speak a bit more with my childhood tree friend. I regret that we’ve have lost touch.


[This short piece is an invited response from Environment and Society (#EnviroSociety) to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) held in Paris, France] 

Displaced Nature: Multispecies landscapes, mushrooms, and the megapolis

Concentric circles of the local to the larger ripple out from a megapolis like New York. The unnatural and natural are tangled in them…

I live across the street from a garment sweatshop. They make ball gowns and on delivery days dresses wrapped in plastic and bound for department stores are sent fluttering on rope down to the street, six floors below. I’d say they look like birds as they fall but they look like nothing I’ve ever seen so that wouldn’t be true. It is strangely beautiful to watch. The workers are all women. Sometimes there is also a cat that will sit on a fire escape. I never see the women arrive or leave. I wonder if they sleep there from the low glimmer of a television late at night. I watch their labor during the day as I work from my desk. At times we catch one another, co-gazing at the Other. The women smile a little when they see me seeing them, which confuses me as I am conditioned to think of a sweatshop as a place of misery.


[This piece was an invited guest post for Savage Minds. It is a short piece on sweatshops and environmental degradation from the  hyper local perspective of what I can see from my desk at home. In essence it examines the urban wilderness....]


Archaeology of the Future (time keeps on slipping...)

Archaeology of the Future (time keeps on slipping...)

Presence and absence have been on my mind; the absence of a blog post for quite some time could certainly be one part of that. While I sort out thoughts and the time to percolate them on that topic, though, I'm posting the session abstract and rather exceptionally intriguing array of presentation titles and abstracts for a session (which will be May 23, 2015) in the North American Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) meeting at New York University. While traditional archaeologists are of course represented, we are augmented and joined by vantages from history of science, contemporary art, contemporary dance, and planetary science.

The title might be more savvy if it were 'Archaeologies', alluding to the multiplicity in the practice, but since that is already the title of 'a vast treasure trove of a book' (per Terry Eagleton of the London Review of Books) written by Fredric Jameson it seemed good to differentiate it slightly. The Steve Miller Band reference, of course, is simply there to create an earworm.

Should you prefer to view the 'Archaeology of the Future' overview as a PDF, you may do so here. Otherwise, the abstracts and participants are listed below.

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The melancholia of muons: Cyclops love, birds’ eye views of Chernobyl and Fukushima, and future fossils (OR: archaeology of a desktop)

Speleothems in paper, colloids of thought.  A core sample of the scree and talus of my desk indicates that strange love and unexpected change are predominant themes. A Cyclops in need of love caught my attention and I ripped out his story. He and his brothers have drifted apart, his online dating profile alludes, though all still hack at iron under volcanoes. He doesn’t name drop, but seems to live under Mt. St. Helens and enjoy its éclat. The Cyclops piece has been mired for days on my work space. Like a woolly mammoth stepping in tar, its escape is unlikely. One-eyed longing trapped on thin, bleached Ikea wood.

Law of superposition suspended, a Harris-matrix is needed to disentangle the Cyclops from an article from months ago. It details a radioactive puff escaped from an underground nuclear waste site in Carlsbad. The nuclear leftovers were thought to have been securely ensconced in mined-out salt deposits. It is the only permanent underground facility in the US. It has only operated since 1999. In that sliver of stochastic decay time, familiarity led to complacency led to the closing of the facility after fourteen workers were exposed to radiation. The Cyclops seeks burning love and a partner for his bed. The workers lie awake in their beds thinking of the melted plastic and rubber now tamped under magnesium oxide. Happiness is elusive.  

Stories tend to divert from the expected if they are true. Reversing the usual opposition to waste materials - and their own NIMBY protests in the 1970’s and 1980’s – Carlsbad residents long for the return of the jobs, scientists, and engineers that the facility brought along with improved infrastructure for the town. Irony: the radiation leak occurred on Valentine’s Day. The day of love and day of mishap and the peculiar desire for the way things were.

In a more perfect world the Cyclops and the Carlsbadians could get together for a night, open a bottle of something, turn down the lights. Perhaps they could watch the eerie beauty of Into Eternity ? Cyclops could explain while in his cups that the images are like visual dactylic hexameter, epic in scope and heroic in intent. It would be useful if true. The Onkalo nuclear waste repository in Finland, focus of the documentary, will need to survive for 100,000 years to protect the radioactive material held inside. It will need to speak once our language dies. Of course, no human-built structure has ever lasted that long. ‘Wait’ says Cyclops, I know what can last’. Cyclops could then quote Anne Carson’s miraculous Red Doc >, ‘Don’t say you weren’t/expecting a volcano’. The Cyclops’ chthonic home could last that long. ‘True, true. But then the volcano, too, can unleash danger and destroy itself’, the Carlsbadians could counter. The only solution is change. Transform.

Another strata of my desk covers this topic of change no one wants or desires but that is thrust upon one anyhow. The birds of Chernobyl know something of this, as articles on their radiation cataracts imply. A monstrous case of natural selection made slightly yes natural, but at least a thread of hope for the birds of Fukushima. Well, for some of them, that is. Like the radioactive wolves of Chernobyl, they have all been entangled as participants in an experiment they did not choose. Experimentation, change, a new era. Plastiglomerate, mascot of this change. A recent newspaper title states it perfectly: ‘Future fossils: plastic stone’. Carlsbad nuclear waste barrels melted and deformed fearfully to create danger. Plastics melted and fused with coral, stones, pebbles, sand, basalt by cheerful Hawaiian bonfires to create anthropogenic stone for the Anthropocene. Plastiglomerate speaks – if stones do such things – of how thorough change can be. The future fossil reporter, so good on other counts, mistakenly describes plastiglomerate as a ‘permanent’ marker in the geologic record (see also). Millions of years cannot be seen as permanent, just persistent. But still not a comfortable thing.

A record only exists in the view of someone who reads it. Just ask the future flâneur who encounters Onkalo but cannot interpret it.

The oceans, not space, are often cited as the true final frontier. A frontier progressively walled by plastic, mind you, the wave of the future. A quote from an oceanographer about the plastic gyre and the habit plastic has of breaking down into bits and bobs that mimic plankton and thus are ingested by every level of the food chain: ‘if you could fast-forward 10,000 years and do an archaeological dig…you’d find a little line of plastic….What happened to those people? Well they ate their own plastic and disrupted their genetic structure and weren’t able to reproduce. They didn’t last very long because they killed themselves’.*   I’ve loved that quote since first reading it, but wonder what that archaeologist would be, if not of our people. Perhaps something more hardy and ancient, like the Cyclops, though he also seems to be struggling to find companionship and unlikely to reproduce with one of his kind. Perhaps a strange, new form, a hybrid, like the plastiglomerate. Fingers crossed that date night with the Carlsbadians goes gangbusters.

Strange love and unexpected change. Strange, charm, up, down: all names of quarks that took center ring in the particle zoo, perhaps because destiny is partly in one’s name. The muon, discovered in 1936, gets little popular press outside of Hadron Collider diagrams (e.g., here) until just recently when it seems it may be useful to map the meltdown at Fukushima. Unlike Carlsbad, at Fukushima we have no idea what has melted. Muon tomography was directed at the Great Pyramid of Giza in the 1960s and, more recently, a Mayan pyramid in Belize. Monumental remains from the otherwise fragmentary archaeological pasts, technologically uncertain futures represented by monumental structures like the Onkalo facility, and a miniscule particle that underlies and sees into it all. It’s enough to do your head in if you think too much about it.

An exhibit pamphlet forms an intrusive vein in my desk strata. A small celebration of the 500th anniversary of Dürer’s Melencolia I is on display through mid-July at the Metropolitan Museum. The famous engraving shows a dejected woman surrounded by a clutter of tools representing the combined arts and sciences available through liberal studies of the sixteenth century. She seems overcome by a sadness that, at the time, was thought to accompany creative genius. The disorder and subject matter of my desk stratigraphy, sample of the information available in the twenty first century, is a very different one. It brings on a far less helpful and fairly unproductive melancholy, kin to the weak nostalgia of Romantic paintings that fixate upon the monument reduced to ruin. We live in a time period in which ‘ruin lust’ (e.g., see here or here) is not a helpful sentiment or even anything akin to love, strange or other.


*(see both Casey, ‘Plastic Ocean’ and Bill Brown’s excellent 2010 Critical Inquiry piece for discussions of the ‘becoming-plastic of the human’). Also, just for fun, read about the zombie spacecraft that has wandered for seventeen years, a locust brood cycle. Self-described ‘techno-archaeologists’ seek to coax the International Sun-Earth Explorer-3 home long after NASA proper gave up hope. [The techno-arch team, based out of a former McDonald’s at NASA Ames, retrieve lost material culture for the data it can provide. That is, in fact, archaeology]. The article notes a prior victory: the team searched magnetic tapes from NASA’s lunar orbiters from the 1960’s, projects my own father was involved with, for high resolution imagery. Space age equivalent of extracting DNA from a million year old insect trapped in amber, with a touch of the personal. 


artist Emilio Rojas in 'Plastic Nightmare: Northern Pacific Gyre'. see

artist Emilio Rojas in 'Plastic Nightmare: Northern Pacific Gyre'. see

A grammar of trees, terror, and a few goddesses: (or) how to turn yourself into a forest

Four figures of speech – metonymy, metaphor, synecdoche, and irony – came to mind in trying to think about a series of trees that captured my imagination on a recent trip due to their messy entanglement of nature and culture.

METONYMY, when a thing is called not by its own name but by something associated with it, braided itself into the bare roots of the centuries old tree I’ve now visited for seven years in Kam Tin Shui Mei in Hong Kong’s New Territories. It is called the Tree House in both English and Cantonese, which connotes a child’s play structure, but it is instead a merging of a Q’ing dynasty study hall and a banyan. The aerial prop roots are no longer distinguishable from the main trunk and the crumbling structure of the building is both destroyed and preserved by it; it embodies the Pompeii concept but in the slow moving time of creeping rhizomes rather than the superheated pace of a pyroclastic flow. The tree and building have become one entity both in name and form. As the banyan is an epiphyte, it relied on sheer kismet against terrific odds to begin its life. By fate or accident, a fruit-eating bird did excrete its seed and that seed did fall into a creviced branch in a tree. The host tree and bird each served as surrogate mothers of sorts and are now long gone, yet their tiny offspring did cling to life and the study hall until it grew from diminutive to monumental. The building still exists but now in the form of wood rather than brick and stone. The Writing of Stones by Caillois -  expensive, out-of-print, beatific fetish object of a book – contains a quote about life being a ‘turbulent, spasmodic sap, a presage and expectation of a new way of being, breaking with mineral perpetuity and boldly exchanging it for the doubtful privilege of being able to tremble, decay, and multiply’.  Perhaps, yes, but the durability and intransigence of mineral is trumped temporarily in the Kam Tin Tree House and is more in line with Ovid’s Metamorphoses; inorganic and the organic are not opposites but lie on the same continuum, separated only by quirky chance.


METAPHOR, analogy between two unlike things, clung to the branches of the wishing trees of Hong Kong. The trees sag under the weight of bao die, oranges tied as counterweight to rolled joss paper inscribed with the supplicant’s wish.  By nature, a wish is intangible. If wishes become physical objects rather than evasive and shadowy desires it is far easier to try and coax them into being. I first thought this when I lived in Rio de Janeiro and watched people push small wooden boats of white flowers and perfume and other gifts into the water from Copacabana beach every new year’s eve. If your boat disappears into the sea, the goddess Iemanja has accepted your offering and heard your wish.  If your boat is spat back on the sand your wish is for naught. For this reason hopeful souls, dressed in flowing white, wade again and again into the waves to encourage their wish-vessel to the goddess’s attention. I was hit by this memory as I watched a teenage boy in Lam Tsuen, New Territories toss his wish-orange again and again, a dozen or more times, before it landed on a branch that kept it. The higher the branch your wish reaches, the greater the chance that the goddess will grant it. His landed on a midway branch that must be a limbo zone.

The wishing tree in Lam Tsuen is in front of the Tin Hau Temple. Like the Kam Tin study hall now subsumed by the Tree House, it was also built in the Q’ing dynasty, either in 1768 or 1771. While the Tree House banyan has remained a constant, however, the Lam Tsuen Wishing Tree has transmogrified. The first tree used for wishing at the temple was a camphor, but it aged and became hollow. The next wishing tree was a youthful bauhinia, though it became damaged by joss smoke in the 1990’s, when wishing tree status was moved to a 200-year old banyan tree near the road. This newly designated tree served well until the Chinese New Year of 2005 when, overwhelmed with wishes, the tree sent a branch crashing down on visitors. It is now propped by sticks and ropes and fenced off like a venerable circus elephant in exhausted retirement. It looks smudged with the smoke of too much reverence and expectation. The tree now used for wishes is made of plastic. It is perfectly upright and life-sized, its branches will not sag or defoliate, but it is not a tree at all. And yet it is. A Science article I like from the early 1970s, when the environmental movement coalesced, asks in its title, ‘What’s wrong with plastic trees?’. The article touches on issues of Nature as a construct and the symbolic and social meanings of landscapes as well as the concept of simulated environments. The plastic wishing tree wraps all of these up in a way that no academic writing ever can.

By chance or not, Tin Hau - like Brazil’s Iemanja - is a goddess of the sea. In Hong Kong you throw oranges to a tree’s branches, once wood and now plastic, to request a wish from the sea. In Brazil you push a boat made from a tree into the sea that is now becoming filled with plastics in a giant, swirling garbage gyre. All of these jangling parts and considerations move from mere metaphor to catarchresis, a mixed metaphor or rhetorical fault when categorical boundaries are crossed and something departs from its traditional usage.


SYNECDOCHE, a confusing figure of speech in which a part defines a whole, whole defines a part, pairs reverse, and relationships convert one into the other, stuck in my head as I stared at the Tree of Life that now stands off the main reception area of Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace hotel. Day after day I returned and stared at it in between eating in restaurants and swimming in the pool that had been loci of terror and death five years past. It was cold in New York City and warm and sunny in Mumbai. The normal-yet-not-normal concept of standing at a site of mass terrorism now fully in the daily flow of quotidian life, though, made both cities feel quite similar. If 26/11 is to Mumbai what 9/11 is to New York, the Mumbai Tree of Life is the hybrid cousin of New York’s cross-shaped steel beams (‘Miracle Cross’) and the callery pear that became the Survivor Tree. While the Miracle Cross is mired in controversy in advance of the 9/11 Museum’s impending opening regarding religious affiliation, the Survivor Tree was replanted at the trade center site in December 2010 without conflict. Originally planted at the site in the 1970’s, it was eight feet tall in November 2001 when it was sent to a Bronx nursery for rehabilitation. Now thirty feet tall, the official 9/11 literature states that ‘it represents all of us’; ‘it’s an emotional symbol for a lot of people’; ‘it reminds us all of the capacity of the human spirit to persevere’. This is, of course, interesting and odd and wonderful in that it is not human at all. It is a tree. The relationship between trees and humans in this context is obviously more interlaced than the separation in their biological kingdoms indicates.  We should only be separated by phylum if we are crossing the boundary lines so frequently in our comparisons with them.

But back to Mumbai. The Tree of Life was cast in brass, bronze, and alloy in 2006 by Jaidev Baghel and sold by his gallery to the Taj without his knowing the purchaser or prominent placement until after the attack. The tree stood on the fifth floor under the iconic dome of the oldest part of the hotel. This section of the Taj burned completely during the excruciatingly long and live-televised terror siege in 2008, details of which are captured in chaotic newspaper articles from the time as well as a recent book (poorly written but well researched enough to compensate). The tree – remarkably undamaged during the siege and fire – was placed in an outdoor courtyard as a symbol of human perseverance. The sculptor said in an interview that he made the piece while thinking of the merciless cutting of trees in Chhattisgarh, India. Baghel lives in the Chhattisgarh district of Bastar, where the goddess of forests, Vandevi, appeals to humans to understand that she too has life and feels pain. Vandevi’s pain was not broadcast globally until the keen for trees became synecdochal for the human lives shattered on 26/11. The artwork was created as a memorial for the pain and death of trees and slid by chance into the role of memorial for the pain and death of people. The tree became linked through synecdoche and its inherent rhetorical enigma to the loss and interconnection of life and how our efforts to memorialize these things often clash when slid into a new context. This is clear in the use of a Virgil quote from the Aeneid that will adorn the wall and the commemorative books and key ring keepsakes for tourist consumption when the National September 11 Memorial Museum gift shop opens in a few weeks. ‘No day shall erase you from the memory of time’, the wall and souvenirs say, merging the slaughter of and by Trojan soldier-lovers and jihadists in a way that makes many uncomfortable.


IRONY, the incongruity or contrast between expectation and a situation:  it hit me full force in London, the final stop of this trip, as trees continued to put propagative roots in my thoughts. Spring had arrived and everywhere in the greenspace-checkered city the trees were covered in buds and blooms and birds. Fresh life seemed to have washed the well-kept streets in a way that would never happen for winter stale, salt and grime caked New York, seemingly destined to remain in polar vortex indefinitely.

In fiddling online for information about one or another of the trees in Hong Kong or Mumbai or New York that commemorate human life or lives or perseverance, the first site that I came across was entirely about death. ‘Be a Tree; the Natural Burial Guide for Turning Yourself into a Forest’, read the banner. It touts natural burial, the ‘ultimate back-to-the-land movement’. Having been a child of back-to-the-land parents, one would think I would find this fairly normative in counterculture terms, and yet I couldn’t stop laughing at its [what I am fairly certain is] tongue in cheek writing. ‘Dying to do the right thing’ as a heading for the natural burial movement in the UK… ‘new product companies fill real needs with style’ to describe  ‘attractive biodegradable burial vessels made from natural and recycled materials’… ‘when it’s time to leave no trace’ as a way of equating the life span to a conscientious camping trip in which you leave no rocks disturbed and carry your waste out with you… the lovely oxymoron of ‘Natural Burial: the traditional alternative’… ‘What’s in the Box (Besides You)’; ‘All We Leave is Energy’…. Even before beginning to read about becoming intentional compost for carefully chosen tree or the possibility of cryogenic freeze-drying of my body before vibrating it with sound at an amplitude to reduce it to powder, compliments of a new method devised by a Swedish soil scientist, I was entirely charmed. *[Note that in the freeze-dry technique metals and non-degradables can be sifted out, accounting for numerous implants. All that would remain is ‘a dry, silt-like and nutrient-dense substance highly suitable for burial and fertilization’. Granted, the expense and energy required for the technique due to its reliance on liquid nitrogen make it less appealing to the site’s author than simple decomposition beneath a memorial tree].

The parting words of the natural burial homepage encourage you to ask, ‘Is there a pioneer cemetery nearby with room for a Bioneer or two?’…‘All that’s left to make the leap is you’. As is the case with the ‘natural’ birth movement, of course, the concept of a ‘natural’ burial is fraught. Putrefaction ‘naturally’ releases all sorts of substances we tend to think of as dangerous or unsavory – freon, benzene, sulfur, and carbon tetrachloride, for example [do see this wonderfully droll Scientific American Instant Egghead video on decomposition] -  but the concept did still give me a smile. The heaviness of thinking about terror and the passage of time and goddesses who ignore wishes suddenly felt out of synch with the spring-drunk cheer of Londoners.

Now I sit in New York City again and I keep thinking about Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which I didn’t think I loved when it came out in 2011. Its 139 minutes felt heavy and I was restless by the end. Images from it have stuck with me, though, more so than any other movie I’ve seen more recently. The opening scene of volcanic eruption that sets off microbial life on a young earth were central for me when I saw the film at the theater, followed in a close second by the asteroid hitting the earth. The telluric and planetary, geological and inorganic, set the stage for the action. But it was the arc of the human life span and its concomitant experiences, memories, animals, ghosts that still stick in my mind, years later. Dendric detritus, they sprouted when I wasn’t looking and grew. Vandevi played the role of epiphyte, perhaps, while Iemanja and Tin Hau served as surrogates? However it happened, I’m beginning to think that trees are anything but natural.

doorway to the Q'ing period study hall now consumed by a banyan tree in Kam Tin, New Territories, Hong Kong. the small child, ancestral to the village but not autochthonous, wandered into the shot by chance as the author tried to photograph the Tree House. (photo by K. Holmberg). 

Cryptocurrency and the magical realism of energy looting

The volcanic landscape is rich in imagery, sensory stimulation, raw materials, and layers of human experience with the geophysical world. I’m explicitly interested in how volcanic landscapes are mined for value;  in the case of my fieldwork in highland Panama, volcanism provided columnar basalt and andesitic slabs used in pre-Columbian grave construction, eruptions provided bases for indigenous oral traditions that made sense of the world, and the volcano provides a contemporary ecotourism draw. All provide very different forms of value derived from volcanism.

I was surprised to recently encounter an entirely new and very early-21st century form of deriving value from the volcanic landscape. A few weeks ago I drove past a former NATO bunker in Reykjanesbaer, Iceland, now repurposed as a bitcoin mining site for the Cloud Hashing company. Whether bitcoin is viewed as something perverse (e.g., here or here) or slightly more positively as the product of ‘utopian cyberlibertarian ideology’ (here), the cryptocurrency concept in itself is fascinating in the form of bitcoin or competitors like Ripple, Litecoin, Peercoin, Namecoin, or Dogecoin [see note below]*.  

The Iceland trip was ostensibly a chance to visit lava fields, ashfall zones, and geothermal energy sites. The deliberate placement of a physical mine for virtual currency there, however, wedged itself in my thoughts as something odd and interesting. The Cloud Hashing bunker (engagingly described here with video and photos) is located in Reykjanesbaer explicitly to make use of abundant, inexpensive geothermal energy permitted by the subarctic volcanic context. A hundred plus computers - caged and guarded - process algorithms day and night; the computers are vented with arctic air to prevent overheating from the constant work as they attempt to outperform other miners' computers to win a block of 25 bitcoins. The decentralized network is programmed to eventually release a total of 21 million bitcoins. Since 2009 over half the full number of total bitcoins allowed by the system have been released, but the slower pace of release built into the program over time means that it may take a hundred years of increasingly difficult and power-intensive computing gymnastics to release the full amount. I can't help but imagine a hundred years of Icelandic solitude for the computers in the Cloud Hashing bunker (and their future generations once they are too old to carry on the endless toil). Reykjanesbaer would take the place of Macondo in the magical realism of virtual wealth.

That wealth could be substantial, which is the draw for speculators. Bitcoin’s current price can be real-time tracked here. For a vivid example of its meteoric rise in value consider that in 2010, 10,000 bitcoins were used to pay for two Papa John’s pizzas; in December 2013 each new bitcoin peaked at $1,100. Worldwide, the computers currently dedicated to bitcoin mining are estimated to have a collective computing power that is 4500x the capacity of the IBM Sequoia, the US Government’s powerful supercomputer. As the Sequoia was built for the National Nuclear Security Administration for nuclear weapons simulations and side projects such as astronomy, energy, genome study, and climate change, it is clearly quite powerful [deployed in June 2012, it was for a short time the world’s largest supercomputer; it was supplanted by China’s Tianhe-2 as of the November 2013 rankings]. Though it is just meant to give comparison of computing power, that juxtaposition of the Sequoia versus the combined data miners’ computing power is a bit confronting, no? Why substantially more energy is put toward wealth creation than climate change and energy studies is a larger philosophical question without a simple answer.

Personally, I find clear parallels between global bitcoin mining and the California gold rush of the late-19th century. The miners in both cases were often ambitious young men gambling in the hopes of finding wealth in new and unexpected forms. More than that, though, I am thinking of the tremendous waste and irreplaceable loss that the gold rush engendered as unanticipated and thoughtless byproduct. As the isthmus of Panama provided one of the best ways for miners to travel from the east coast to west coast of the US or back, a connected ‘gold rush’ began when gold artifacts were discovered in highland Panama graves. Thousands upon thousands of pre-Columbian graves were opened and emptied. The finely crafted gold artifacts within them were most frequently melted for the value of their metal (which was fairly diluted as it was tumbaga, or a gold-copper alloy; it was the archaeological context and data and caliber of craftsmanship that would now make them priceless), while ceramic artifacts were broken and discarded or became, with stone artifacts, part of a secondary market of lower value.

To return to the image of lonely, caged computers working for the next hundred years to mine bitcoin…. If the theme of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Hundred Years of Solitude was the repetition of history with the continual presence of ghosts, the historical overlap in rushes on pre-Columbian Panamanian graves and bitcoin mining is that of unimaginable wastage. While desecrated graves clearly link to ghosts of the past, the wastage of vast amounts of fossil fuel have uncomfortable associations to the ghosts of our own children and grandchildren. While the earnest and likable entrepreneur behind the Icelandic Cloud Hashing facility proudly touts its use of geothermal energy, in order to diversify in case of power outages or changes in government regulation he will build his next bunker in Texas. No geothermal energy to run the computers, no arctic air to cool them; the expenditure of non-renewable energy in order to create something ephemeral will be in stark contrast to the glowing description of the Icelandic facility's sustainability.

Archaeologists fetishize coins as a prototypical exemplar of terminus post quem; if you excavate a neatly date stamped or dateable one in your site - barring errant rodent tunnels or other such inconveniences to your stratigraphic cake layers - you are gifted a clear fix on your chronology. For this reason alone I might be suspect of a virtual currency like bitcoin and more likely to support one that is more tangible or material. I can’t help but feel hope and gratitude, though, for the optimism behind a currency called SolarCoin. While SolarCoins can be mined via algorithms like other cryptocurrency, house owners with solar panels will receive actual coins from their energy company for each megawatt-hour of electricity they feed back into the grid. The idealistic and grassroots element of the currency is at the core of bitcoin as well, but without the Silk Road and Tor associations and without the need to air condition a mine full of overheated, overworked, and very solitary computers in Texas.


* While 21 million Dogecoin were recently hacked and stolen, to their credit they are also largely behind the presence the Jamaican bobsled team in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi so we should cut them some slack. Less slack permitted for the egregiously named CoinYe with a cartoon of Kanye West on it.

Richard Perry/The New York Times (Cloud Hashing bunker in Reykjanesbaer, Iceland)  
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Richard Perry/The New York Times (Cloud Hashing bunker in Reykjanesbaer, Iceland)

Plush volcanoes: triumph of the strange and curious

Source and conduit of telluric, chthonic creation and destruction, the volcano embodies the most fearful and exhilarating elements of the sublime for thinkers from Immanuel Kant to Anne Carson and everyone who falls between them. The volcano is nothing to toy with, which makes its taming into a cuddly plush plaything as strangely wonderful as it is.* 

The volcano, like the sea, represents the primordial and pre-human for the modern mind, existing prior to the formation of life on a young planet that is imagined as hostile and foreboding; a monstrous and fearful environment. A recent and worthwhile review of maps and monstrosity titled ‘Here be Monsters’ states that,

primordial monsters are hybrids defying nature. They belong to dark places, those underworlds under land and sea—volcanoes, ocean abysses—because they embody our lack of understanding, and mirror it in their savagery and disorderly, heterogeneous asymmetries of shape.

Another recent and worthy review titled 'Triumph of the Strange' riffs on the topics of wonder and curiosity and the resurgence of interest in odd polymaths such as Athanasius Kircher:

As museums were built for science and galleries for art, the curiosity cabinet went underground, resurfacing in 20th-century Surrealism... By the 1990s, curiosity cabinets resonated with the ambitions of interdisciplinarity in the humanities and, more specifically, the post-positivist turn in the history of science. If one no longer regarded the Wunderkammer as a bizarre pre-scientific foible, it became possible to ask what kind of epistemology it implied.

The plush volcano, then, is perhaps viewable as an interdisciplinary bit of surrealism in the commodified Amazon locker/cabinet of collections? The 'Triumph of the Strange' piece might give a more accurate description of its soft and squishy materiality as being more specifically that of,

"Untranscended materiality": this is how the anthropologist Peter Pels defines curiosities—as singularly unrepresentative things—things that almost point to other things, but ultimately only back at themselves, like the shapes in Roger Caillois's dreamily patterned stones...

To return to points brought out in the 'Here be Monsters' review, that which could be potentially dismissed as whimsy (Medieval cartographic sea monsters) or play (the lyric drama of Fishskin Trousers) is in fact indicative of a great deal more. Our envisioning of a primordially monstrous environment of the past is less fearful than that of a future bounded by environmental degradation and anthropogenic climate change. Our monstrous ignorance 'is no longer epistemological but ethical' and the true monstrosities of our high modern period are scientific overreach, cruelty, exclusion, and intolerance.


*This particular plush volcano comes with a set of resident dinosaurs who live in caves at the base of what appears to be an andesitic stratovolcano. While a dinosaur is a thing of wonder and fright, monstrous in form and size,  the volcano is more powerful than the dinosaur [though do see this app for some pterodactyl comeuppance].


2013-12-12 plush volcano.JPG

A particularly Earthly amalgam

Archaeology relies on fragments and hints and nuances we lump into the category of ‘data’ in order to create narratives of how life and the planet intersected in the past.

A computer model built by researchers at the Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin is pushing the gaze back substantially farther than an archaeologist can, though, to produce results that are speculative and striking.*

The model runs a ‘dead-Earth’ hypothetical context in which life – algae, lichen, and bacteria in the early case – never formed. In a ‘live-Earth’ setting, the life that became us does germinate.  All goes identically in the models when they start 4 billion years ago; by 2.5 billion years ago the early continental plates rise above the ocean in both cases. This is where things get really interesting.

In the live-Earth model the life forms ‘colonise the new land, erode it and dump masses of sediment into the ocean’ where it is subducted and then ejected to the surface in volcanic eruptions. The live-Earth becomes the one we know with roughly 40% of the planet covered in continental land.

The dead-Earth, with a dry mantle and little continental crust creation, would have been a global ocean punctuated by volcanoes. It would have been a true Waterworld, minus Kevin Costner’s Mariner.  

A great deal of environmental literature speaks of a hypothetical pristine Nature that never actually existed. What makes the results of the 'live-earth' model so fascinating is the concept that even the deepest, most inner core of the Earth potentially co-evolved with the life that the planet supports, ourselves being part of that life. We are all tangled, in essence, into a matrix that includes stone, water, plant, animal, and human to form a particularly Earthly amalgam. Geosphere and biosphere unite in the messy time of the Anthropocene.

*A hat tip to Chris Rowan @Allochthonous , whose tweet alerted me to this article I might have otherwise missed. If you don't read his blog, Highly Allochthonous, it's worth doing. 

'Deliberation' by Mario Sanchez Nevado   

'Deliberation' by Mario Sanchez Nevado 

All paroxysms should be so lovely

The human body and life cycle are used regularly to define the volcano because it is all that we have to try and understand that which is larger than us. A volcano is born, sleeps, and dies. A crater has a mouth; lava traces a path with its fingers. If only the analogy could be reversed and the metaphors could come from the earth and be applied to us.

Sadly, our paroxysms tend to be far less glorious than those of Etna. Agony, burst, ebullition, fit, flare, flush, gush;  this tiny sample of synonyms for the word connote highly negative associations in the human form.

These still photos of the Nov 16-17 Etna event show that in geological form, paroxysm is magnificent. The truly sublime aspect of eruption, however, comes through more clearly in video of the same paroxysm event.

As always, Erik Klemetti's Wired Science Eruptions post on the event is a good one and also contains links at the end to some of the many webcams monitoring Etna (should you tire of the pandacam?).


photo credit: Tom Pfeiffer

photo credit: Tom Pfeiffer

clouds of artificial nature

The nature:culture binary admix of an 'artificial' 2013 ash cloud made up of ‘natural’ 2010 Eyjafjallajökull ash is delightfully tangled in all the best ways. Experimentation and prediction are all we have, as humans, to try and understand earth processes. When Katla or Hekla do break out of dormancy, though, rather than hope for a fully predictable eruption cycle it does make a great deal of sense for airlines to have the ash cloud radar described in this release.


photo credit: Jon Gustafsson/AP

photo credit: Jon Gustafsson/AP

life in the steaming maw

really, that was just a place holder title. I'm just trying out the push function to tumblr.... I will start adding to this blog in earnest with time. I thought this goat, which I shot in the mists and wafting sulfur gases of Iceland, was a nice way to start....

photo credit: Karen Holmberg

photo credit: Karen Holmberg