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Artist’s conception of a general Arcology

All of this talk about Mirabilis, the fictional future city of marvels which is dying from within (the setting of Daniel Claymore’s new science fiction/mystery novel) has gotten Ferrebeekeeper thinking about arcologies.  At present, an arcology is only a concept for the future–a super dense human city engineered to contain a self-sustaining ecology.  However, for a long time, architects, futurists, and urban planners have been working on buildings and communities which partake of the grand ideas behind arcologies.  Maybe that idea—building a mutualistic gestalt between lots of people, all their stuff, and humankind’s favorite living things—is really at the heart of urbanism.

We will talk about the implications of arcologies a lot more in the future.  To my eyes, the synthesis of ecology, evolution, and engineering has only happened in rudimentary ways thus far, but humankind will need a much greater grasp of this technology (and whatever sciences lie beneath the catchall field of ecology) to proceed any farther down the road we wish to be on.  For today’s post, however, we are only going to talk about contemporary news—since one of the world’s richest states has broken ground to build what is pretty definitively an arcology.  The planned city will consist of two 500 meter (1640 foot) tall glass skyscrapers standing 200 meters apart (from the outer wall of one to the outer wall of the other).  Between the two buildings will be an internal courtyard filled with delights.  Oh yeah, I forgot to mention this–the buildings’ length will be 170 kilometers (110 miles).

Artist’s conception of “The Line” (ending point at the Red Sea)

This complex is part of “Neom” a strange futuristic city which will be built in the desert beside the Red Sea. The particular linear arcology/double skyscraper is named ذا لاين (which, appropriately means “The Line” in Arabic). The whole community is being planned and financed by that great utopian visionary entity–the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia!??? Sorry about those extra quotation marks, but if you were around in the late twentieth century/early twenty first century, you might be more likely to think of Saudi Arabia as an ossified petrostate more famous for a Faustian bargain between kleptocrats and Wahabi religious extremists than for futurist thinking (although, come to think of it, the Sauds arguably did have a major hand in engineering our current dystopia of global warming, religious extremism, and vast inequality).

The Saudi Prince may be noble, but he is said to consort with insurrectionists and other low characters

Anyway, setting aside all political and ethical concerns, the plans for the Line were announced on January 10, 2021 by that notorious cut-up, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (a fiend–er–friend to a cross-section of journalists). When it is finished, “The Line” is expected to have nine million residents (a million more people than New York City). The Line will be powered entirely by renewable energy, and inhabitants will be able to walk anywhere they want within 5 minutes. If their, uh…in-Line, destination is not 5 minutes away, they will be able to take a subterranean bullet train to any place within the arcology. Deadly motor vehicles (which killed 43,000 people in the United States alone last year) will be banned!

This actually doesn’t sound half bad and I might sign up–at least if I weren’t now on record making fun of the wife-beating, murderous, & conniving (yet reform-minded) Prince Salman. Estimated costs for building The Line run between $200 billion and one trillion American dollars (which is probably less than the Second Avenue subway line ended up costing). The Saudi government estimates it will create 380,000 skilled jobs.

Futurists, political theorists, and real estate mavens debate the merits of The Line. Humorously, the last group object that it falls down somewhat when it comes to their core mantra of “location, location, location” (located, as it is, in a barren sweltering desert with no attractions or neighbors of any sort). The real estate people also assert that it is otherwise a laundry list of development cliches and problems waiting to happen. For my part though, I am uncertain but intrigued. Even with slave labor and all of the wealth of the world’s foremost petrostate, I wonder if Saudi Arabia can build this thing according to the schematics. But imagine if they did! I admire this kind of crazy out-of-the-box thinking–and I kind of like the concepts behind both Neom and The Line. Since the United States has given up entirely on thinking about the future (and since the Germans are completely practical and the Chinese think only about subjugating Asia and Africa) somebody has to think big and attempt enormous impossible projects. I have mixed feelings about the vicious autocrats who rule Saudi Arabia, but I wish them good fortune in building their audacious science-fiction city. If it doesn’t work we will know a lot more about potential problems with insane mega engineering (on someone else’s dime). And it is does work, well we can build something like it within a canyon on the moon, or the shadow line of Mercury.

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The arid scrubland of north and central Australia is an uncompromising environment of rocky hills, dry creekbeds, arid plateaus, desert mountains, scree, and a landscape which Australians call “gibber plains” (which, as far as I can tell, seems to be a desert of cobblestones or small sharp boulders).  Plants need to be tough to survive in this harsh country and the spinifex grasses fit the bill.  These course sharp grasses form stout tussocks which can survive with minimal water in a land where droughts can last for years.

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But this is not a post about desert grass or dry cobblestones; it is about an amazing bird which is capable of living a gregarious sedentary lifestyle in this vast dry landscape.  Spinifex pigeons (Geophaps plumifera) are a species of bronzewing pigeon which live in the baking grasslands of the island continent.  They are handsome and endearing pigeons with yellowish barred feathers, a white belly, and red cateye glasses.  Perhaps their most pronounced feature is a a magnificent elongated crest which looks not unlike the bleached khaki grasses which provide their home and sustenance.

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The spinifex pigeon lives throughout most of northern and central Australia where it survives by foraging for seeds of drought-resistant grasses and suchlike scrub and by eating any tiny invertebrates it is lucky enough to find.  The birds are social, and live in flocks from four to a couple of dozen (although much larger flocks have occasionally been spotted).

I don’t really have a lot of further information about the spinifex pigeon, but it is a worthwhile addition to my pigeon gallery, because of its handsome appearance, and because it is so thoroughly a resident of the scrubland.  Just comparing the spinifex pigeon with the Nicobar pigeon of tropical islands of the Andaman Sea, or the bleeding heart pigeon of the Philippine rainforest is to instantly see how climate and habitat sculpt creatures into appropriate shapes and colors.

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Last week we checked out the planned city of Palmanova which was built by battle-hardened Venetian egalitarians who were planning for an Ottoman invasion (which never materialized).  Palmanova is shaped like a nine-pointed star and while regular polygons are stylish and exceedingly geometric, if you are like me, you might find them a bit too geometric.   Why couldn’t they build cities in the shape of some magnificent animal like a quoll or a rhinoceros?

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Juba, South Sudan

Well you are in luck! They could very well build a city in the shape of a rhinoceros!  The nation of South Sudan came into existence in 2011 as a direct result of the Second Sudanese Civil War which lasted from 1983 to 2005 (that war followed the First Sudanese Civil War which lasted from 1955 to 1972…but I am going to elide over some of the history of Sudan so that we don’t become overwhelmed by despair).  South Sudan is a young nation which faces a lot of problems…one of which is that the capital Juba was built for the convenience of the British army (and the Greek merchants who supplied the army) and it hasn’t really proven very suitable as the capital city of a modern nation state.   The most likely outcome is that the capital will be moved to Ramciel, which is closer to the center of the country and not quite so arid, but urban planners came up with a fascinating alternate proposal to build a whole new Juba in the shape of a mighty rhinoceros.  Here is the plan:

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Now obviously, it isn’t right to build perissodactyl-shaped cities just because you can (although cities certainly used to be designed around horses).  The citizens of South Sudan also have needs which are more urgent than the need for a vanity project in the middle of a site which has already proven problematic.  Yet the sheer nuttiness of the proposed rhinoceros Juba, makes me a bit sad that we are unlikely to see it.

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Of course the fact that it is unlikely doesn’t mean it is impossible.  Like the new Indonesian Capital City, the capital of South Sudan is currently in administrative flux. I will keep you updated on the what happens with the move to Ramciel (nothing worth speaking of has happened so far) or of the rhinoceros, if anybody shows up with backhoes and starts scraping it out of the arid plain.  In the meantime, let us wish the very best to the founding fathers of South Sudan as they try to make their troubled new nation prosperous in a time when deserts are becoming hotter and drier.  And speaking of desert cities, tune in tomorrow when we see what other directions city planners have taken to deal with this challenging environment.

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These pictures show the ancient and mysterious ruins of Djado, an abandoned African city which exists in current day Niger.  The ruined city is found on the Djado Plateau in the Sahara Desert, a portion of the world’s greatest desert in Northeastern Niger, which is famous for truly ancient cave art of massive animals long gone from the region (and often from Earth).  It seems the region was once a forest, and then a lush grassland, but now it is a desert (which is worth thinking about). Djado does not seem to be the actual original name of this abandoned fortress town, but is rather a description: “the abandoned city of Djado” (like calling Detroit “the abandoned City of the Great Lakes”), however since I don’t have access to the actual name, I will call the ruins “Djado” so that this post isn’t unreadable. The adobe ruins date to 800 to 1000 years ago, when the community was an important trading center for salt and slaves between kingdoms in Niger and Libya.

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The city’s most recent inhabitants, the Kanuri people, abandoned it–perhaps because the water supply grew brackish, the desert grew too fierce, or the original economic reason which lead the city to flourish had long since vanished.  The Kanuri may or may not have been the original inhabitants–the Djado plateau seems to have been a disputed region between greater kingdoms and empires, but the real history is uncertain.   The photos are certainly evocative however, and they provide troubling food for thought as Ferrebeekeeper begins to delve more deeply into the history and meaning of cities.  I would also like to think about the future direction that cities can go, since ever more of humankind lives in these habitats we have made for ourselves.  Yet we barely seem to have thought about the possibilities of what we could truly create and instead we have utilitarian follies which reflect our obsession with status and our relentless competition among ourselves.

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From afar, Dubai has always struck me as disgusting (indeed the Gulf States as a whole raise my hackles).  It is a society where the super-rich who can purchase the good graces of the Sultan (or whatever rinky-dink title their life autocrat styles for himself) can literally do anything to anybody without any consequences.  It is a slave state built on the suffering of others–mostly Indian and Pakistani workers who are bamboozled to come over and then worked to death in the oppressive heat or robbed by goons working for the aristocracy.  It is a petro-state in which the oceans of wealth come from one and only one industry (a dangerous and supremely problematic industry at that). The flagrant & ostentatious Muslim extremism which is such a feature of life in the Middle East is much on display, but naturally the opprobrious strictures of the faith do not apply to the wealthy, and Mohammed’s lessons of compassion, self-discipline, and striving seem to be lost on his most outspoken followers in the middle and lower tiers of society (who read the divine poetry of the Koran and find only reasons that they are better than everybody else and excuses to abuse outsiders at their will).  Also, the whole place is in a sweltering desert.  It is what the United States aspires to be in the era of Donald Trump: a fundamentalist kleptocracy with lots of ugly towers where the sordid pleasures of the few eclipse the suffering of the many.

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But what pleasures they are! Today’s essay is a work of bemused praise for Dubai (sorry if that purpose got a bit, um, muddled in the first paragraph up there).  The crazed rulers of the place have built one of the world’s most lavish pleasure gardens:  the Dubai Miracle Garden.  The garden is indeed a miracle, since it is built on a reclaimed desert.  It is also a miracle of gardening artifice so formal, disciplined, and rigid, that it almost looks synthetic. Indeed it looks very synthetic: as though Mickey Mouse ate a lot of cheap candy and barfed on the set of Blade Runner.

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Opened on Valentine’s Day in 2013 the Dubai Miracle Garden is allegedly the world’s largest flower garden (as opposed to larger less densely planted parks, or the flower fields of Holland or Africa). With over 109 million blooming plants covering 72,000 square meters (about 18 acres), it certainly sounds like the most densely planted garden.  The flowers are built into pavilions, buildings, and colossal sculptures like some nightmare from Jeff Koontz.

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To my eye, the plants of the Dubai pleasure garden mostly look like flashy annuals.  That would be highly appropriate since it is a disposable venue.  Every year the gardeners tear everything out and build a whole new world out of flowers.  The greatest highlight seems to have been the flower version of the Emirates Airbus A380 (pictures of which are heavily featured in this post).  However certain features, like the flower clock and the 850,000 sq ft multistory garage seem to be perennial (I could not tell if the garage was made of flowers too, or of some more prosaic material).

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Although I have poked fun at it, I really would like to see the Dubai Pleasure Garden.  It is an astonishing accomplishment and the sheer excess gives it a Baroque beauty. Indeed my appetite for extremes makes me want to see all of Dubai (which exemplifies the same excessive style), but I feel like I might have burned some bridges in that respect with this selfsame blog post.  Fortunately, if I wait around, Brooklyn will probably look the same in 20 years.  Since I doubt I am going to become an oligarch, I might even get the opportunity to build the Brooklyn Miracle Garden with my own two hands as Jared Kushner or some such cruel overseer master gardener directs with the whip long flower pointer.

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Here is one of the world’s rarest and strangest fish, the golden cave catfish (Clarias cavernicola) which can be found only one place on Earth, the Algamas/Dragonsbreath cave in the Namib Desert.  This incredible cavern is 100 meters (300 feet) beneath the desert and it holds the world’s largest known underground lake (discounting all subglacial lakes—which can be huge).  Above ground is an arid desert wasteland, but in cave is a huge lake where unfathomed waters may descend another 100 meters into the Earth.  Since only a narrow chasm opens to the sky, the lake has a very limited ecosystem built around whatever falls into this chasm (which was only discovered by science in 1986).  These blind ascetic catfish dwell on such scraps and on the white shrimp and strange aquatic worms which live in the water beneath the desert.  Though they have lost their eyes, their other senses have become extremely acute in order to find every bug or speck of nutrient which falls into the hidden lake.  Additionally, these small (16 cm/6 inch) fish have a limited ability to sip air–so that they can better survive the still and anaerobic depths of their hidden lake. The entire species may only consist of a few hundred (or thousand) individuals.

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Ash Wednesday is 40 days before Easter.  It begins the Lenten season which commemorate the 40 days that Christ spent in the wilderness fasting while being tempted by the world (and by the great Adversary).  Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness came just after he was baptized by Saint John and before his Galilean ministry.  The story was not particularly germane to the events of holy week and the Passion, yet it is built into Lent nonetheless.

I find the story of Christ in the wilderness powerful.  The story of a man overcoming hedonism, materialism, and egoism for something far greater has a singularly compelling power.  Indeed, the episode seemingly gave rise to Christian monasticism—which was one of the defining forces of the middle ages.  However, even though there are parts of the life of Jesus which appear again and again and again in art, the temptation in the wilderness is underrepresented because of the challenge it poses for visual artists (save perhaps for the grand finale, where the devil takes Christ to a high place and offers him the whole world for a moment of adoration).  The asceticism and emptiness which make up the majority of the event does not lend itself well to visual idiom.

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Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness (James Tissot, ca. 1890, gouache on paper)

This is why I am presenting this impressive image by James Tissot, a French weirdo who spent his youth illustrating lavish high fashion events of the nineteenth century before having an extreme religious conversion (which coincided with the French Catholic revival).  Thereafter, Tissot painted episodes from the Bible, and he is among the greatest of Biblical illustrators not just for his innovative, passionate, and exquisite images, but also because he departs so thoroughly from the centuries of Christian artistic convention.  There are stories in the Bible which were painted by almost nobody ever…except for James Tissot.

Here is Tissot’s version of Christ in the wilderness.  The Son of Man has encountered Satan in the guise of a fellow hermit proffering plain food.  The landscape is weirdly alien and empty…a truly fitting canvas for this monumental moral conflict.  Yet, closer study reveals it is a surprisingly accurate depiction of the hot evaporitic lgeology around the Dead Sea.  Jesus turns away from the Devil, and yet he simultaneously turns away from us, the viewers.  His face is perfectly revealed—yet like the naked landscape of canyons and dunes it is somehow mysterious and hidden.  Our eyes fall instead on the Devil, who kneels before Jesus, off center at the bottom of the picture and yet dominates the composition with weird energy.  Blackened by the sun he holds up weird lumps of bread. He looks just like a friendly Osama Bin Laden.  The temptation is clear, but the rejection of the bread (and its dangerous peddler) is even more strongly demonstrated by the arrangement of the figures.

Tissot’s early works show perfectly fashionable aristocrats who exemplify every aspect of worldliness and status consciousness.  That effete tutelage has given this austere painting its power.  Think about the disturbing Beckett-like simplicity of this arrangement.  Yet there is a universe of meaning in the relationship between these three principals (Jesus, Satan, us).

Namorodos

Namorodo Spirit (Mick Kubaku, 1971, earth pigments on eucalyptus bark)

Ferrebeekeeper has not written about the undead for quite a while…so here is a terrifying monster from Australian aboriginal folklore. Namorodos (Namorroddos) are a type of evil nocturnal monsters from the mythology of Western and Northern Arnhem Land. Namorodos come from broken lands of rocks and sharp cliff faces. Made of dried skin, gristle, and bones, they fly through the night on howling desert winds. They are desiccated and thin and horrible—desert corpses brought to savage hungry life by supernatural force.

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Mimi Spirits and Namorodo Spirits (Bobby Barrdjaray Nganjmira, ca. mid to late twentieth century, ochre on bark)

Like vampires and other undead, namorodos seek to suck the moist insides out of living humans (and thus transform the living into fellow namorodos). As with the horrible Alpine Krampus monster, namorodos seem especially fond of preying on willful children who become lost because they fail to listen. They seem like the savagery of the arid lands personified as a villain: a lesson written in horror.

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Namorodo Flying in the Sky (Wesley Ngainmijra, 1988, Chalk on paper)

Namorodos are also illustrated in the beautiful art of Arnhem land. Look at these disquieting yet elegant pictures of the arid monsters.

Namib Sand Snake (Psammophis namibensis) by Cowyeow from Flickr

Namib Sand Snake (Psammophis namibensis) by Cowyeow from Flickr

This endearing little desert snake is Psammophis namibensis, the Namib sand snake. As you may have intuited based on the name, the snake is endemic to the Namib Desert where it lives in the vast sand seas which stretch from the Atlantic coast deep into the African continent. The snake is little—the largest males are slightly more than a meter (three feet) in length and most are even smaller than that. It is whipcord thin with delicate dust-colored stripes running horizontally along the top of its body.

Juvenile Namibian Sand Snake (Psammophis namibensis)

Juvenile Namibian Sand Snake (Psammophis namibensis)

The snake looks rather spindly and delicate, but don’t let its looks fool you. It lives in a god-forsaken desert and it can move across the treacherous shifting sand with blazing speed.

Aww...poor little guy lives in an enormous desert

Aww…poor little guy lives in an enormous desert

Speaking of which, how does this animal live in such lifeless devastation? Even in the dry dunes of the Namib, life thrives on our glorious planet! Like Grant’s golden mole, the sand racer eats tiny arthropods, lizards, and rodents which make their home in the sparse scrublands along the rim of the dunes or even upon the dunes themselves (the snake clearly manages to traverse this dry sea). The snake is mildly venomous (to us—the venom works better on small prey).

Namib Naukluft National Park, Namibia. (Photo by Michael Poliza)

Namib Naukluft National Park, Namibia. (Photo by Michael Poliza)

Once again I have been thinking about the Namib Desert–the world’s oldest desert–which calls to me for reasons I cannot fully explain. I wrote about some of the Namib’s strange animals and plants…but one thing I did not mention was its ergs. This is because I did not know what an erg is, but today I looked it up and the concept is simultaneously horrifying and beautiful. An erg is a sea of wind-blown sand. This geographic feature is not unique to the Namib Desert—or indeed to planet Earth—but they do tend to be found only in vast & mighty deserts. Such a landscape is characterized by vast dunes—mountain-like sand hills composed of immense numbers of individual sand grains.

A sand dune in the Rub al Kali Desert

A sand dune in the Rub al Kali Desert

Geographers have seemingly fixed certain parameters on how large a sandbed must be to count as an erg—but I will let you look these up on your own—I think the word “sea” covers the scope of ergs. We are not talking about a child’s sandbox here.

Issaouane Erg, Algeria (photo from the International Space Station)

Issaouane Erg, Algeria (photo from the International Space Station)

The word erg derives from an Arabic word “arq” which means dune landscape. The Rub al Kali Desert “the empty quarter” of Saudi Arabia is a vast erg—the world’s largest. There are a multitude of ergs throughout the Sahara (as seen on the map below) and they can also be found in central Asia, the middle of Australia, and the Atacama Desert (which I also really need to write about). Ergs are less common in North America than in Asia and Africa, but there a few notable examples mostly in the Sonoran Desert, but also including the unimaginatively named “Great Sand Dunes” in Colorado.

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The geology of ergs is quite fascinating as the dominant agent of erosion and change is wind rather than water. When wind activity shapes the surface of the Earth (or another planet), geologists describe the varying sorts of erosion, deposition, and weathering as “Aeolian processes” in homage to the ancient Greek god of the winds who crops up in the Odyssey and the Aeneid. Ergs do not just feature great dunes but also strange sand sculpted rocks and dry river beds.

White Sands, New Mexico

White Sands, New Mexico

As noted, ergs are not a phenomena exclusive to Earth, but can be found on other planetary bodies too (if they have silica and atmospheres). Ergs have been discovered on Mars where vast erg fields ring the polar caps. The Martian winds blow the ergs into bizarre patterns and shapes (usually I would say “otherworldly”, but that seems too pedestrian a word here). Venus also has ergs (discovered by the Magellan probe) and Cassini’s radar spotted huge parallel ergs on Saturn’s great moon Titan. Indeed ergs may be the dominant surface feature of Titan.

Martian Polar Dunes (photographed by the Mars Odyssey Spacecraft)

Martian Polar Dunes (photographed by the Mars Odyssey Spacecraft)

I have never been to an erg. There are none in Brooklyn (yet). However I would like to see one…although I admit to a certain amount of trepidation. They do not seem like places for life, and indeed they are among the most lifeless places on all of Earth. Ergs are beautiful but also terrible and dangerous. At least they should stay free of suburban sprawl for long enough for me to visit one (and it will probably be a very long time indeed before we cover the ergs of Titan with strip malls).

Erg Chebbi in Morocco (Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)

Erg Chebbi in Morocco (Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)

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