The Rhizotron of Illinois
Over the summer we heard a lot about the Rhizotron and the Xstrata at London's Kew Gardens. In published reports, these new attractions were always twinned together; in fact, on the official website, it's the “Rhizotron & Xstrata Treetop Walkway.” The Xstrata literally takes visitors up to the canopies, and because of the close pairing, we naturally thought that its subterranean equivalent, the Rhizotron, was just as spectacular in terms of design and engineering.
Of course, this was before we saw photographs of the Rhizotron, before when we couldn't help but picture garden lovers navigating through damp and dimly lit passages, bumping their heads into gigantic (simulated) roots, watching all manners of animals burrowing and nesting in the soil (behind museum glass windows), and learning firsthand all the different soil horizons. (“The soil has architecture?!?!” the pasteurized denizens of the concrete jungle will cry out.)
This was also when we have already worked ourselves up into a frenzy by imagining and choreographing its spatial experience: first a descent into the abyss like Jules Verne, then all sense of geography gets lost — or you literally get lost — until somehow you emerge out into the open at the other end, squinting hard at the fullness of the British sun as you ascend up, up, up to the trees, the heaviness and claustrophobia of the earth replaced with buoyancy and vistas.
Alas, to the disappointment of our own making, we later learned that the Rhizotron is no more than a concrete bunker, not that extensive and probably not even wholly subterranean. Up against one wall is a bronze installation, a stylized root system inlaid with educational multimedia. On the floor is a strip of flashing lights. How all of these could engender a meaningful engagement with the hidden landscape is quite puzzling.
Consider, then, “the largest fossil forests found anywhere in the world at any point in geological time.” The discovery was first reported by practically everyone the summer before, and it is finding its way through the wires again this week with the report that these ancient rainforests — one of the first to evolve on the planet — was wiped out by global warming 300 million years ago.
What has always fascinated us about these mineralized landscapes is that they were found in underground coal mines in Illinois. To see them, you would have to put on a hard hat and maybe pack an emergency oxygen canister, because here, the proverbial walking through a forest means spelunking through an extensive underground network of tunnels.
Let the U.S. Department of Interior declare the tunnels a national park. Open it to the public, and you have the Rhizotron of Illinois.
There, while ducking low ceiling, getting soiled, fighting claustrophobia and coughing up pulverized coal, you get to survey the ecology of an extinct landscape. Up against one wall is a dense mat of ferns, and on another are some delicate fronds frozen in time. Look up, and you might see the grass-like leaves of the “giants of coal age forests,” the lycopids, or the diamond patterns of their bark.
The walls, ceilings and floors are plastered with complex geometries in such a way that we are reminded of incomplete mosaic floorings of imperial Roman villas. Typical of Roman paintings, we have images of nature decorating an interior space. It's a garden scene, in fact: a rainforest of the very distant past, a mythological age when the U.S. was straddling the equator, rendered with the tessarae of “ancient vegetation - now turned to rock.”
As splendid as Lascaux's prehistoric cave paintings. As marvelous as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (though this might have a truer version of the Creation story).
Accessing the Wilderness, or: A Proposal for a National Park of Abandoned Gold Mines