Tarim Desert Highway
Last year, the above photograph of the Tarim Desert Highway in western China was used to decorate a post in our now retired Prunings series. We've always thought that it should have its own separate post, so here it is.
As described by Wikipedia, the highway “crosses the Taklamakan desert from north to south. The highway links the cities of Luntai and Minfeng on the northern and southern edges of the Tarim basin. The total length of the highway is 552km; approximately 446km of the highway cross uninhabited areas covered by shifting sand dunes, making it the longest such highway in the world.”
“In 1994,” says People's Daily Online, “the Tarim desert highway was expanded to the central area of the Tarim Basin, and the completion of the central Tarim oil-gas field, the largest of its kind in China, will make Xinjiang become a strategic substitute area for China's oil and gas resources. Following this, the highway continued to expand in the desert and has turned into a macro-artery for bringing along the economic development in southern Xinjiang.”
In other words, it plays a key role in the country's energy security. And if we may be allowed to indulge ourselves for a moment and parse that last sentence, the highway is also an important tactical infrastructure of pacification through which state control, in the guise of “economic development,” can easier be meted throughout the mainly Muslim and violence-prone region.
To protect this supposedly strategic highway from getting buried by the encroaching sand dunes, rows of vegetation were planted on both sides of the road. An extensive irrigation network was laid down to sustain this artificial ecosystem, pumping water from underground reservoirs and then distributing it throughout. Although the water has a high saline content, this greenbelt has successfully taken root. The desert blooms.
While we cringe at reading that this greenbelt has somehow “improved” the ecology of the desert, it would be worthwhile to track down some of the research that were conducted in preparation for the project. We might, for instance, find out some new techniques that would help plants survive extended periods of drought. We're also interested in their plant list. Perhaps they have discovered that some species, previously not known for their hardiness, actually have a high tolerance for sandy soil and salty water, and then later, have genetically modified them to improve their survival rates. And who knows, maybe their experiments are paving the way for food crops, not just ornamental ones, to be cultivated in deserts and watered with sea water.
Considering that climate change will turn many places into deserts, these Tarim xeriscapers could offer us some helpful advice in adapting to our arid future.
And what's happening in the photo above? At first glance, we thought that they had covered the desert with hardscaping material, but on closer inspection, those are just rows of plants.
Still, we're hoping that someone will come along and leave a comment saying that for large sections of the highway where the vegetation cannot take root, the Chinese government had hired someone to pave over the dunes, a sculptor wanting to stop the migrating dunes dead on their tracks as a kind of long-form performance art. And then, due to several bouts of heatstroke and because that abrasive sand keeps getting into his crotch all the time, he just went out of control.
He's now concretizing the whole desert!
Meanwhile, notice the red-roofed blue buildings. According to National Geographic, they “appear every few miles [and] house workers who maintain the greenbelt.” The workers sign up for stints that may last up to two years. They may be with their spouses or get paired up with someone else, but essentially, they live solitary lives, an eccentric group of monastic botanists in a mystical struggle to arrest this ephemeral landscape in time and space.
“rising like alien plants on the terraformed lakebed”
One of the interesting things — and there are definitely many — that you will read about in Kazys Varnelis' paean to the “networked ecologies” of Los Angeles, The Infrastructural City, is the dust control system at Owens Lake.
After decades of monumental water projects that have diverted the lake's “life-giving liquid” to quench a distant city's thirsty populace, to ensure the perfect shade of green for their lawns, and to turn their swimming pools into aqueous micro-paradises, the now parched lake has become a health hazard.
Writes Barry Lehrman, author of the first chapter:
Wind gusts above twenty miles an hour lifted over fifty tons per second of “Keeler Fog” off the lakebed. Often reaching over two miles high, these dust storms sent 130 times the United States Environmental Protection Agency's limit for particulate matter into the atmosphere, blowing the dust over 250 miles from the lake. Such storms occurred two dozens or more times each year, generally in the spring and fall. Composed of microscopic particles smaller than ten microns (PM10), the dust contains significant levels of toxic metals like selenium, arsenic, and lead along with efflorescent salts. The largest single source of PM10 pollution in the country, these dust storms were a clear threat to the 40,000 people in the immediate region.
The threat, according to Lehrman, came in the form of higher rates of cancer, respiratory disease, and eye problems.
To combat these carcinogenic storms, Los Angeles grafted onto the desiccated corpse of the lake a hydro-network as monumental as the existing network responsible for the situation it is tasked to offset: “over 300 miles of pipe (some as large as five feet in diameter), more than 5,000 irrigation bubblers, and hundreds of miles of fiber optic control cables and valves.”
[T]he dust control projects on Owens Lake is roughly equivalent to that of a waterworks for a city of over 220,000 people. Construction of the first five phases, treating the worst thirty square miles of dust-emitting soils on the playa, has cost the City of Los Angeles $425 million dollars to build. But that sum doesn't factor in the lost revenue from the water being appropriated for the project (around $15 million/year) or the operations and maintenance budget, some $10 million per year.
“[R]ising like alien plants on the terraformed lakebed,” the bubblers flood the playa with shallow water, creating the merest suggestion of a lake, a perverse reminder of Lake Owens' former self.
However superficial such observations may be, we couldn't help but see similarities between these bubblers and fountains.
Firstly, much like the fountains at Versailles, behind these water spouts is a staggering hydrological infrastructure. Among other things, Versailles had the Machine de Marley, considered the greatest engineering marvel of its time; Owens Lake is part of what is probably the greatest water engineering project of the 20th century.
Secondly, since time immemorial, fountains have been creating micro-climates, cooling gardens, palaces and sartorially bedecked aristocrats. The array of bubblers, you could say, is also a type of weather modification system: an anti-dust storm. Moreover, fountains like those at Columbus Circle in Manhattan can provide a sonic barrier, making one unaware of the tumult outside; with some conjecture, probably forced, you could say that the bubblers don't do much to make Los Angelenos more aware of the negative environmental effects their mode of living is contributing outside the city.
Thirdly, if one can only speculate that fountains have ameliorative effects on one's mental state, you probably don't need to speculate the positive health effects of the bubblers.
Fourthly, fountains like those in Rome are objects for aesthetic consumption; these ebullient and rather photogenic desert sprinklers, thanks to CLUI, have been appropriated into a staged aesthetic experience.
Lastly, and most significantly, they are the products of a complex network of intermingling social, technological, political, economic and geographical conditions, the manifestations of competing ideologies and agendas. They're not mere water features, in other words.
In any case, we recommend the book.
Instead of a wind farm that no one seems to want built near their homes, how about a hot-air balloon farm to generate renewable energy?
New Scientist reports that “Ian Edmonds, an environmental consultant with Solartran in Brisbane, Australia, has designed a giant engine with a balloon as its 'piston'. A greenhouse traps solar energy, providing hot air to fill the balloon. As the balloon rises, it pulls a tether, which turns a generator on the ground. Once the balloon has reached 3 kilometres, air is released through its vent and it loses buoyancy. This means less energy is needed to pull the balloon back down again, resulting in a net power gain.”
For those merely interested in hard numbers, calculations show that “a large 44-metre-diameter recreational balloon could generate 50 kilowatts, enough to supply energy to about 10 homes.”
For us, we want to see some fantastic, unrepentantly beguiling images showing vast tracts of land (or the ocean) planted with boldly colored balloons bobbing up and down, a strange buoyant forest unfurling and retreating during the day, fully resting at night.
Taking cues from Ken Smith and Kathryn Gustafson, urban parks everywhere will have their own aerial installations, generating power for the park itself, if not for the surrounding neighborhood.
Or in the urban periphery of foreclosed suburbs, now bulldozed and eradicated, reformatted as energy fields, electrifying cities and hopefully not tragically impeding bird migrations.
Gaza City, Illinois
For a few seconds this week, in between the live feeds of the spectacle in Washington, D.C. and on the Hudson River, CNN went silent. When reports of possibly another round of shelling in Gaza, its anchors and reporters had the bright idea to stop talking and let viewers simply listen in on whatever that could be heard from yet another live video feed, this one peering into the war zone from afar. No international journalists are allowed inside, so it was the best that CNN could do at breaking news reporting from the trenches.
“Is that some kind of a humming noise?” the anchor asked the foreign correspondent, breaking the silence.
We didn't hear a humming noise; we heard something droning. But was it from a surveillance UAV or the movement of tanks sonically reverberating through holy bedrock? Or was it something coming from our heating vent? Could it have been the running motor and refrigerator fans of the delivery truck parked outside our HQ? Was it coming from here or from thousands of miles away?
This apparent and quite accidental conflation of sonic and physical space led us to imagine a temporary sound installation, which would go something like this:
1) Overlay a scaled map of Gaza City on a map of Chicago.
When the next major conflict erupts, turn them all on, and Chicagoans will eavesdrop on the aural landscape of another city: the whirring blades of helicopters, the whistling of mortars as they streak across the sky, the roar of burning buildings, metal grating on metal grating on rocks and dirt, the cries and wails of widows and orphans, the crackling statics from a speaker disconnected to an obliterated mic.
Of course, where Chicagoans might listen in will depend on the orientation of the maps.
Perhaps this twinning results in one speaker getting sited on a school playground, and so the joyous screams of children there will mingle with those of telepresent children playing during the brief lulls in the fighting.
How about a speaker on Federal Plaza, right on the same block as President-elect Obama's Miesian HQ? Its counterpart in Gaza is actually on a prime location to pick up the thundering shockwave of Israeli jets crossing the sound barrier. The plaza would thus come under similar sonic attack, turning it into a battlescape. Moreover, as there is no way of knowing when it gets blasted again, the plaza becomes an anxious landscape, wherein, after several exposures, federal employees acquire post-traumatic stress disorder.
Will one of the city's Olmsted parks be serenaded by the natural soundtrack of war?
Of course, most speakers will likely be on the streets and inside buildings, embedded into the sidewalk pavement and office walls, adding to the ambient noise of the city. Is that a mortar explosion or a car backfiring? Is that a malfunctioning siren humming in B-flat or the hum of the HVAC system?
Two soundscapes melting into each other.
POSTSCRIPT #1: “So many drones over #Gaza city it sounds like everyone is out mowing their lawns in the dark” — Richard Engel (@RichardEngel) 16 Nov 12
POSTSCRIPT #2: “Surreal: 830 PM in #Gaza City and all I can hear is wailing cats below and many buzzing drones above. No sound of people.” — Ben Wedeman (@bencnn) 18 Nov 12
POSTSCRIPT #3: “From the BBC: how the sound of war is changing, from shields to helicopters to drones (includes audio): http://bbc.in/SW65r4” Simon Sellars (@ballardian) 22 Nov 12