Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Excavating Urbanism: Algae and Infrastructure in Chaco Canyon

One of our fascinations here at FASLANYC is the myriad historical/mythological alternative forms of American urbanism. We are huge fans of the American landscape in all its sublime and banal magnificence; nowhere else has the human species confronted bigness, population loss, immigration, and excess (of function, materiality, and energy) at such a grand scale.

[the Canyon de Chelly by Edward S Curtis, 1904- the Southwest, once an American urban center, remade as ahistorical myth of the wild west]

Recently we’ve come across some exciting work in the nascent field of landscape archeology on Anasazi urbanism (though really, almost everything in landscape archeology can be defined as exciting).  First, let’s offer a working definition of landscape archeology- it applies the rigor of archeological methods (gridding out zones, careful measurements of objects, data collection) to landscape processes and territories as opposed to individual sites or objects.  This leads to fascinating applications of stratigraphy and aerial photography, methods which are influencing the practice of landscape, much as geology did in the mid-19th century.

At any rate, Chaco Canyon was very likely the center of a large, sprawling urbanism spread out across the mesa and connected to the Canyon- the cosmological center of the society- by transportation and storm water infrastructure.  The aerial photography reveals the development as a cellular structure, a networked urbanism of accretion.  This is utterly contemporary, as if Mat-Sys and the Network Architecture Lab birthed a child and sent them to cotillion with Mitchell Joachim and Lateral Office.  Everywhere is roads and canals and pods, “thick” surfaces, vessels, and conduits. Boy, howdy. 
[modern American tourism infrastructure overlaid on Chacoan urbanism]

Over on the excellent Canyons Worldwide, Richard Fisher has been poking his lens and nose in and around Chaco Canyon and the cache of scientific literature it has generated (the website is excellent, by the way, and we recommend spending some time with it) for several years now and he has a very curious hypothesis.  The harsh environment of the mesa would have made agriculture extremely difficult, both because of the sparse rainfall but also because of the lack of organic fertilizer.  In this essay (specifically pages 6, 14, and 18) he starts with the hypothesis that “if the Anasazi built structures (canals, pits) that retained water, that is what they were built for.”  Wow.  That’s why he’s paid the big bucks. 
[an excavated canal in the Chaco Canyon region]

But let’s examine it; what he’s discussing are the hundreds of lines and depressions in the Chaco Canyon zone that all appear to be some kind of networked infrastructure.  These have been hypothesized as the standard Mesoamerican constructions of this geometry- roads, ball courts and “grid gardens”, a hypothesis he is rejecting as they still leave open a gaping question- how did this seemingly unproductive land support an urbanism so highly developed?  He proposes that they were actually a vast storm water retention system that was able to generate bio-fertilizer (as opposed to our petro-mineral fertilizer) used for farming, not just flush the water away.  Basically, these canals would guide storm water to depressions where it would pool for days, giving rise to teeming algal blooms catalyzed by the crypto-biotic soils of the surrounding mesa.  This fertilizer would then be harvested and used for crop production which was effective enough to produce the massive, sprawling urban agglomeration apparent as archeological sites in the dry canyon that today supports only tourists.  He constructs this hypothesis with an examination of existing scientific literature and then tests the hypothesis with a diy recipe for the fertilizer:

1 gallon distilled water
3 cups native mesquite/palo verde detritus
1 cup interior of dove nest
1 tablespoon night soil
2 cups material from below wild bird feeder
2 tablespoons dead insects (drowned bees, ants, wasps)
1/2 cup charcoal
2 tablespoons bird and rodent droppings

Let mixture stand in the sun for five days at 75-105 degrees Fahrenheit and average 50% humidity.
Ionization test for nitrogen and phosphorus
1. Sweetwater Phosphate=369mg/L Ammonia=215mg/L
2. Sweetwater/Organic Mulch mix Phosphate=401mg/LAmmonia= 227mg/L
(testing by Tom Huntsberger, Analytical Services Lab. Northern Arizona University August 4,2003)
Dr. Dean Blinn: this is a very high quality organic liquid fertilizer.
[Pueblo Bonito, a center of urbanism in Chaco Canyon]

We admire those methods!  Just imagine if the Anasazi could enter our design competitions today!  They would have an NYC and Los Angeles branch office in no time.  Much like the Amazonian urbanism, the urbanism of the Anasazi was dispersed, resourceful, infrastructural, and cosmological.  How utterly todo-americano.

1 comment:

  1. Not dead bugs and biosolids.pyramid builders mined plankton deposit.i found tunnel.nearly pure powdery green dirt.bugs and animals enchanted by it.humans see it differently.forestry headquarters said maybe in 20 years.what national biosolids untill.i have show.people fear change.