I was excited to read that Robert Macfarlane, a writer whose work I always look forward to and whose book The Wild Places remains one of my favorite books of the last five years, is apparently writing a book "about subterranea and the worlds beneath our feet." No release date yet, but certainly something to watch out for. Hopefully he'll include a trip to Nottingham.

(Thanks to Nicola Twilley for the tip).

Alternative Inputs

UK artist Ryan Jordan led a workshop earlier this summer in Montréal, building musical instruments out of geological circuit boards, an experiment in terrestrial instrumentation he calls "Derelict Electronics."

[Image: From "Derelict Electronics" by Ryan Jordan; photo by Lauren Franklin].

The sputtering and noisy results use "a mesh of point contacts connecting to chalcopyrite and iron pyrite to make crude amplifiers out of rocks."

"When an electric current is sent through the rocks," Jordan explains, "sporadic noise bursts from the speakers. With some fine tuning these rocks begin to behave like microphones, amplifying howling feedback and detecting subtle scratches and disturbances in their surrounding environment."

[Image: From "Derelict Electronics" by Ryan Jordan].

The extraction of sound from or by way of minerals is less bizarre than it might at first sound, considering that, as Jordan points out, his experiment is actually "based on the Adams Crystal Amplifier (1933), a precursor to the modern transistor, one of the fundamental building blocks of today's electronic and digital world." In a sense, then, these are just a hipster rediscovery of crystal radio.

The resulting instruments, though visually crude, are Frankenstein-like webs of copper wire and rocks affixed to, in these photographs, a wooden base. The potential for aestheticizing these beyond the workshop stage seems both obvious and highly promising.

[Images: From "Derelict Electronics" by Ryan Jordan].

In fact, I'm reminded of the amplified lettuce circuits of artist Leonardo Amico or the recently very widely publicized work of photographer Caleb Charland—in particular, Charland's "Orange Battery"—which literally taps fruit and vegetables as unexpected electrical inputs for lamps and other lighting rigs.

[Image: Caleb Charland, "Orange Battery" (2012), which took a 14-hour exposure time].

Charland takes stereotypical still-life arrangements, using, for instance, apples and potatoes as an electrical source for the lamp that illuminates the resulting photograph—

[Images: Photos by Caleb Charland].

—or he simply plugs directly into crops while they're still growing in the field, as if we might someday set up lamps in the middle of nowhere and build outdoor interiors shining at all hours of the day. Redefining architecture as electrical effects without walls.

[Image: Photo by Caleb Charland].

Combining Charland's and Jordan's work to stage elaborate, fully functioning rock-radios built from nothing but wired-up pieces of crystal and stone could make for some incredible photographs (not to mention unearthly soundscapes: podcasts of pure geology, amplified).

But, continuing this brief riff on alternative geo- and biological sources of power, there was a short article in The Economist a long while back that looked at the possibility of what they called "wooden batteries." These botanical power sources would be "grid scale," we read, and would rely on "waste from paper mills" in order to function.

The implication here that we would plug our cities not just into giant slurries of wood pulp, like thick soups of electricity, but also directly into the forests around us, drawing light from the energy of trunks and branches, is yet another extraordinary possibility that designers would do well to take on, imagining what such a scenario literally might look like and how it would technically function, not solely for its cool aesthetic possibilities but for the opportunity to help push our culture of gadgets toward renewable sources of power. Where forests become literal power plants and our everyday farms and back gardens become sites for growing nearly unlimited reserves of electricity.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Electric Landscapes).

The Peterborough Tunnels

A weird old story I came across in my bookmarks this morning tells a tale of tunnels under the town of Peterborough, England.

[Image: Gates in Holywell, Peterborough; photo by Rowland Hobson, courtesy of Peterborough Today].

The local newspaper, Peterborough Today, refers to a woman described simply as "a grandmother" who claims "that she crawled through a tunnel under Peterborough Cathedral as a schoolgirl." That experience—organized as a school trip, of all things—was "terrifying"; in fact, it was "so scary that it gave her nightmares for weeks afterwards."
About 25 of us went down into the tunnel, one at a time; none of the teachers came in. It was pitch black, had a stone floor and was about two feet high and three feet wide. We crawled along on our hands on knees. The girl in front of me stopped and started screaming, she was so scared. The tunnel started in the Cathedral and ended there too; we were down there for what seemed like ages. When I eventually got home I was in tears. Afterwards I had horrible nightmares for weeks about being buried alive underneath the Cathedral.
What's fascinating about the story, though, is the fact that not everyone even agrees that these tunnels exist. A "city historian" quoted in the same article says that, while "there are small tunnels under the Cathedral," they are most likely not tunnels at all, but simply "the ruins of foundations from earlier churches on the site, dating from Saxon times." The girls would thus have been crawling around amongst the foundations of ruined churches, lost buildings that long predated the cathedral above them.

But local legends insist that the tunnels—or, perhaps, just one very large tunnel—might, in fact, be real. To this end, an amateur archaeologist named Jay Beecher, who works in a local bank by day, has "been intrigued by the legend of the tunnel ever since he was a young boy when he was regaled with tales that had been passed down the generations of a mysterious passageway under the city." This "mysterious passageway under the city" would be nearly 800 years old, by his reckoning, and more than a mile in length. "Medieval monks may have used the tunnel as a safe route to visit a sacred spring at Holywell to bathe in its healing waters," we read.

Although Beecher has found indications of the tunnel on city maps, not everyone is convinced, claiming the whole thing is just "folklore." But it is oddly ubiquitous folklore. One former resident of town who contacted the newspaper "claimed that a series of tunnels ran between Peterborough and Thorney via a secret underground chapel." Another "said that he recalled seeing part of a tunnel in the cellar at a home in Norfolk Street, Peterborough," as if the tunnel flashes in and out of existence around town, from basement to basement, church cellar to pub storage room, more a portal or instance gate than an actual part of the built environment. And then, of course, there is the surreal childhood memory—or nightmare—recounted by the "grandmother" quoted above who once crawled beneath the town church with 25 of her schoolmates, worried that they'd all be buried alive in the center of town (surely the narrative premise of a childhood anxiety dream if there ever was one).

No word yet if Beecher has found his archaeological evidence, but the fact that this particular spatial feature makes an appearance in the dreams, memories, or confused geographic fantasies of the people who live there—as if their town can only be complete given this subterranean underside, a buried twin lost beneath churches—is in and of itself remarkable.

(If this interests you—or even if it doesn't—take a quick look at BLDGBLOG's tour through the tunnels and sand mines of Nottingham, or stop by this older post on the "undiscovered bedrooms of Manhattan").