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Here in America, we don’t hear a great deal about the Sahel, the great arid scrubland which stretches across Africa from the Atlantic coast to coast to the Red Sea coast just south of the Sahara Desert (I think the only time I have mentioned it, in thousands of blog posts, is when I mentioned the world’s most deadly snakes).  The Sahel is vast: it stretches for 5,400 km (3,360 mi).  It crosses some of the poorest and most sparsely inhabited countries of Earth.  Great droughts have hit the Sahel bringing starvation and horror to the semi-nomadic herdsmen and subsistence farmers who make up most of its population.  It is the scene of sectarian fighting, terrorism, instability and violence.  Most ominously, the desert is coming.  The world’s largest desert is expanding, pushing southwards into the Sahel (which in turn pushes further into the Sudanean grassland which lies south of the scrublands).  Imagine if half the United States was scrubland like the California chaparral (but with lions and Boko Haram); now imagine if turned to insane deadly emptiness like Death Valley or the Rub’ al Khali [shudders].

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The people of the Sahel are tough people.  Their ancestors survived the great drought from 1450 to 1700.  They have conceived a crazy titanic super project to prevent the Sahel from becoming the Sahara.  It is a beautiful and stupendous concept—one of the great endeavors which is being attempted right now, but since it is not being undertaken by the great democracies or by mega-corporations or by the Chinese (who are experiencing one of their periodic scary resurgences under a ruthless and driven Emperor), it has not been much in the news.

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The project is to create a great green wall to keep the desert out.  This wall will stretch across the entire continent and it will be alive, made up of millions upon millions of trees.  The green wall will stretch though 11 countries (but 9 neighboring countries will also contribute). It is envisioned as a living wonder of the world: a vibrant forest where once there was wasteland.  The hard lessons of China’s Green Wall and the Algerian Green Dam have allegedly been integrated into the ecological planning for Africa’s Green Wall.  The project launched in earnest in 2012 and already 3 million trees have been planted in Senegal and Burkina Faso. Eritrea and Ethiopia are said to be making real progress on their forest planting projects too.  If this project succeeds I will have respect for the African Union.

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Of course, I can barely plant an azalea in rich loam in temperate Brooklyn without it croaking: how are nomadic warlords going to plant thriving forests across a vast sun-baked badland and end up with a living forest?  The green wall may well fail or it might cause strange unanticipated problems, but it is wise not to write it off.  Over generations, humans remade the forests and savannahs of the world before we even had our vaunted technology.  Anthropologists and ecologists are coming to realize how much of what we though of as natural forest (or rainforest) was actually the result of thousands of years of human nurture and cultivation.  The Amazon and the Congo rainforests may owe much of their makeup to human activity over countless generations (I need to explain these further in additional blogposts…but one mind-blowing concept at a time!).  If the people of the Sahel are steadfast, determined, and clever, there might someday be a forest like the one the dreamers have been describing.  Wouldn’t that be something—just imagine one of the world’s greatest forests in Sudan and Chad and Mali…

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By its very nature building involves limits. The great cathedrals of Medieval Europe were the apogee of technology during their time—the peak accomplishment of the architects, masons, and artisans of the day.  As the centuries passed, the mighty churches became larger and more ambitious—the buildings soared ever higher on increasingly lofty flying buttresses until finally the builders reached the limits of stone and iron and mortar.

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais

This happened at the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais (hereafter Beauvais Cathedral) an incomplete cathedral which many people regard as the most daring achievement of Gothic architecture. Work was commenced on the cathedral in 1225.  From the very beginning the building was designed to be the tallest and most splendid church in the world.  This magnificence was probably partially intended as an act of defiance by France’s northern barons, who were allied with the episcopacy in a struggle with the French throne–a struggle for power which culminated when the northern lords revolted against Louis VIII and attempted to kidnap his son Louis IX (who escaped the plot to ascend first to the throne and later to sainthood, and after whom Saint Louis, Missouri is named).  Unfortunately the grandiose architectural plans were hampered by funding problems and by structural flaws.

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais from the west

Although Beauvais Cathedral was intended to be taller than other cathedrals, the original planners also designed the flying buttresses to be thinner. This was both to allow them to soar higher (since they weighed less!) and to allow maximum light into the stained glass windows of the building. Unfortunately the design did not work out. The cathedral collapsed in 1284 (well, actually only part of the choir vault collapsed, along with multiple flying buttresses). Contemporary structural engineers believe that the failure was the result of resonant vibrations—an unhappy mixture of spindly buttresses which were just the wrong length to cope with the region’s high winds. The cathedral was built and rebuilt off and on throughout the following centuries, with mixed results. In 1573 the structure suffered another major setback when the 153 meter tall central tower collapsed.

The Plan of Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais (the black is extant, the gray is missing)

Today only the transept and choir remain, but they are indeed magnificent. Unfortunately, the structure is still in peril. In the sixties, the cathedral’s caretakers removed iron bars which were laterally connecting the buttresses in hopes of making the cathedral look even more graceful.  Unsurprisingly, this action caused the transept to separate from the choir. Steel rods were quickly added, but, being more rigid than iron, they seem to have increased the rate of fissure. A wide number of sundry modern braces were added throughout the eighties and nineties, and in 2001 a team of architects from Columbia University scanned the entire edifice. They hope to use their comprehensive imaging resources to design less unwieldy solutions to the cathedral’s many problems, but, at present, the world’s most ambitious gothic edifice remains a masterpiece of beauty but a failure of function.

Inside Beauvais Cathedral

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