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Entries in landscape (93)


Alesia II


Bernard Tschumi. Alesia Museum, Burgundy, France, 2011.

This Tschumi drawing of Alesia looks like a Roman bracelet flung onto the ground a long time ago, grass and weeds growing through it.  There is something about this project that keeps raising these images of decorative precious adornments.

Bracelets, Roman Britain, buried in the 5th century AD, now in the British Museum. 
Found at Hoxne, Suffolk in 1992. Alongside approximately 15,000 coins were many other precious objects, buried for safety at a time when Britain was passing out of Roman control.


Oxbow, Saskatchewan

Oxbow, Saskatchewan.

The classic prairie town: CPR tracks, Railway Avenue, Main Street crossing at right angles to it, the old town neatly conscribed by the section lines, the new town spilling north into the adjacent quarter-sections.  
Oil is near, developed in the mid-1950s, there is still a grain elevator, dating from the early 1900s, the oxbow is on the Souris River, population 1200, Highway 18 from the Manitoba border to Estevan follows the CPR line and becomes Railway Avenue as it divides the town from the elevator and its outbuildings.

Oxbow, Saskatchewan. Google Maps
There used to be one of these towns every 6 miles, or every township.  Now when you drive through southern Saskatchewan often all one sees is a roadside plaque saying that there had, once, been a town there.

We are such a long way from Monday and the Battle of Alesia.



John Macoun. Manitoba and the Great North-West : the Field for Investment; the Home of the Emigrant, Being a Full and Complete History of the Country. Guelph: World Publishing Company, 1882

In St Boniface, above, one can see the remains of an oxbow from the Red River. Detached from the main flow, it would have become, as indicated in this 1882 map, a slough perhaps flooding each spring.  Not to worry, the street grid has been drawn over it anyway, good flat land for development.  Just to the west (the map has west at the top) of the oxbow one can see the old seigneurial land divisions: thin narrow lots fronting on the river.
In the google satellite view, below, the edge of the oxbow is Enfield Crescent, the eccentric in the grid.  The seigneurial pattern is gone, but the road that skirted the swamp (also long gone) remains, permanently embedded in the street layout.

St. Boniface, Winnipeg: from Google Maps, rotated 90° clockwise to match the 1882 map.



Harold N. Fisk, Ancient Courses. Mississippi River Meander Belt, 1944

The greek key pattern is sometimes called the meander, after the Maeander River, now called the Büyük Menderes River that flows from central Turkey to the Aegean.  It winds through the Maeandrian plain in the manner of most prairie rivers, cutting into soft banks and creating oxbows.  


Tschumi's Alesia

Bernard Tschumi Architects. Alesia Museum, Burgundy, France 2011

Bernard Tschumi's interpretive centre for the battle of Alesia, 52 BC, where Julius Caesar's army surrounded Vercingetorix's Gauls: the site, in Burgundy, has this building referencing Roman wood fortifications, and will eventually have a second stone building up a hill, referencing the besieged Gauls. 

The battle was actually a long freeze: Caesar's troops circled the base of the plateau with 18km of 4m high fortifications, blockading the garrison of 80,000 soldiers at the top.  Vercassivellaunus, Vercingetorix's cousin attacked the Roman fortifications with 60,000 men, but Caesar's forces held the line.  Aside from the delight in typing the wonderful names of the Gauls, it occurs to me that these were very large armies, in modern terms the size of the Canadian Forces in total.

Caesar's eventual victory marked the end of Celtic power in what is now the territory from France and Belgium to northern Italy.

The exterior screen of Tschumi's Alesia museum is wood, the shape and pattern bring to mind the Greek key meander tiara of Alice of Battenburg: there is something both victorious and celebratory about this circlet sitting on the Burgundian plains.  Its pattern puts the screen into motion, it dazzles.  

Tiara of Princess Alice of Battenburg, circa 1903, her marriage to Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark.

From their fortress the Gauls could see the Roman encirclement, which would have been nothing as solid as this single-point museum, thus the museum roof has been turfed as a displaced ground plane to indicate the original view from the Gallic heights. 
The roof planted with trees and shrubs is also a reminder of helmets with leaves and branches stuck into a netted cover as camouflage: a military strategy as old as war and still in use.

Image from from the Axis Reenactment Forum, where hot battles rage over reenactments that put Italians into German camo and vice versa


clever birds

Thinking of the birds who live in prairie shelter belts including the beautiful and cheeky magpie, we have (unusually) a pair of hummingbirds living over the winter in the summerhouse.  They are Anna's Hummingbirds, originally from California, but moving up the coast as it all gets warmer. 

Then, thinking of other proprietal names such as Bewick's Wren, thought I'd have a look at Bewick's A History of British Birds which he put together between 1797 and 1804, illustrating it with beautiful wood engravings.  Evidently he used tools for metal engraving on hardwood, and when he signed his name, added his fingerprint, both (the metal on wood and the fingerprint) unusual lateral forms of expression.

Here are his engravings of a rook and a magpie. 

In the drawing of the rook, there is a scarecrow just above its tailfeathers – a tiny message about the rook's character.  There are some obscure details of something behind the magpie – if ours are anything to go by it should be the 18th century equivalent of roadkill: magpies are omnivorous.  The most endearing thing about these birds is that they all talk, chuckling away at each other and us, making jokes, issuing warnings, natter natter in the apple tree.  



Alberta Agriculture shelterbelt specifications.


how to lay a hedge


Zander Olsen, Tree/Line

Zander Olson. Untitled (Cader), 2008


Louis Helbig: aestheticising the unconscionable

Louis Helbig. Bitumen Slick N 57.19.28 W 111.25.44 Syncrude Aurora North

Helbig writes of the image above: Booms confining bitumen floating near the edge of Syncrude's Aurora North tar pond.  This is where industry suffered its most serious massive public relations setback in the spring of 2008 when someone alerted the public and the authorities to flocks of ducks landing on its surface.  In this particular incident about 1,600 ducks were killed.  Syncrude was convicted in 2010 of breaching both federal and provincial environmental reglations.

He has a series of aerial photographs of the oil sands region, and although his view is activist, as one can see from the captions, the images are beautiful.  How is it that our visual acuity has been trained to find abstraction so sublime.  Context is removed and we gaze at such images with the appreciation other eras gave to flowers or girls with pearl earrings.  This is precisely what is so dangerous about the removal of context, scale, consequences and facts.  They are removed.  

We need people such as Louis Helbig to keep explaining not just his photographs, but the abstract nature of the oil sands enterprise itself.  Whatever it does there is a diagram on the map with pipelines dotted in to Texas, maybe to Prince Rupert and on to China.  It is a series of mirrored glass office towers in Calgary and Houston. It is every plastic bag we throw hopefully into the recycling bin, it is the cloud of exhaust everytime we start our cars. 


rockfall net

Rockfall netting, Trans-Canada Highway, Kicking Horse Pass near Golden BCThis is a prosaic image of the steel mesh curtains in the Kicking Horse Pass just east of Golden, on a dangerous, narrow, steep, winding part of the Trans-Canada where there is only half a shoulder and no where to stop.  I usually pass these curtains in the winter and have seen them covered in hoarfrost, or wet and shimmering in the sun, or packed with snow.  They are very beautiful, but it is suicidal to try to take a photo of them while driving.  And one cannot stop.  

This is Burgess Shale territory and both the highway and the railway tracks sit on narrow ledges hacked out of the cliffs cut by the Kicking Horse River.  These cliffs, limestone and slate, shatter with the freeze/thaw cycle and crumble away landing on the road surface, thus the curtains which hang in front to catch falling rock.

A little farther east, the rubble beside the road is pale green, a particular formation that is compressed calcium carbonate, they say.  All this rock is fragile, it weathers easily and continuously.  The road is in a permanent state of repair and reconstruction and is often closed.  There is no radio signal, cell phones do not work: one is in the middle of a large stretch of unalloyed geology.  There are gabions, there are straw erosion bales, there are curtains, there are tiny cars and trucks hurtling their way through it all, there are accidents and a primitive understanding that this is still a dangerous landscape.


gabions 2

Gabions at Studland Beach, Dorset

Gabions counter erosion on beaches, usually under soft cliffs such as limestone and sandstone, or they protect roads and paths next to the beach. Lots of them in soft calcareous and slatey southern England: above, Studland Beach in Dorset, tidy genteel gabions made by a masonry culture – they look like dry stone walls.  Below, rough gabions in rough, granitey Scotland.

Duncan Astley. Gabions at Loch Hourn, Corran, ScotlandGabions are transparent to water, but obstruct larger things: sand and rock. A near-perfect solution, water is not thwarted, it comes and goes, but in a diminished way, its force absorbed by the gabion.  The fill would be formless and weak if not held in place by the wire cage which, with the lightest of touch, forms a fighting unit of rubble.



Breach in the north wall of Fort Sumter filled with gabions, 1865. Federal Navy, seaborne expeditions against the Atlantic Coast of the Confederacy, 1863-1865.

Two more weak systems: wicker baskets and piles of rocks that together can fortify a rampart.  This particular kind of gabion can also be found in Viollet-le-Duc's Issu du Dictionnaire raisonné de L'architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècleViollet-le-Duc. Gabions, 1856.

The same system is in military use today: Hesco Bastions are flat wire-reinforced canvas bags that spring open to make a drum which is then filled with material at hand. 

Donovan Wylie. Mountain Position. Mas Sum Ghar. Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, 2011This is a Canadian Forces FOB.  Hesco Bastions form a palisade. It all seems so fragile, scaffolds and gabions, yet they are capable of great protective strength. 


a luxury of bamboo sticks

bamboo scaffolding, Cambodia

Haven't much information on this photo, but it is from Vulgare, a most interesting landscape blog from France. 

Clearly this scaffold has something to do with cliff stabilisation: two weak systems pressed against each other to hold everything in place.  The tires at the bottom of the unscaffolded part are another such solution: gabions holding back the base.  And the shade arbour in the foreground, another fragile structure that in certain circumstances could be life-saving.  This is an unpeopled photograph of a scene dense with human need and activity.


Troy Nickle: nature as culture


So very tired of the bloody wars, environmental collapse, the 99%, the bad news.  Troy Nickle's exhibition in Lethbridge calms the mind somewhat.


destination earth

Tidy segregated piles of construction waste placed in between piles of blasted granite.  They take on a kind of beauty as they subside into the landscape.  The gently sagging drywall might simply be fill, but given that one of the remedial actions on an acidified terrain is to spray it with lime, perhaps gypsum has the same effect. 

Drywall. Sudbury building site, September 2011

Brick. Sudbury building site, Sepember 2011

Concrete. Sudbury building site, September 2011

Aha! The ubiquitous blue tarp. Sudbury building site, September 2011

Tire mat, used to blanket a rock explosion. Sudbury buidling site, 2011



making ground

Janine Oleman, photographer. From Be Not Afraid of Greatness, Musagetes Foundation 2011

One of several problems with this new housing on the ridge overlooking Sudbury is that the horizon has been broken by buildings, making it close and limited.  Horizons are like frontiers: places of potential simply because they are so abstract and so distant.  They appear without scale, the line between land and sky.  Here there is a horizon limited by the temporal and limited quality of the housing development.  A roof is not a horizon.  

There was much made in rural Britain in the 1960s about preserving horizons: one could build on a hillside as long as the roof line did not interrupt the natural top of the hill when observed from a main road, or a town, or a footpath – in other words, nothing could be built on top of a hill because it interrupted some sort of sacred understanding of topography.  

Behind this row of drab new housing is a field of rubble: the process by which rock, seen as obstructive, is reduced to ground, seen as fertile for building.  It is a small tragedy; the mistake would be to think that it is the rapacious nature of development or the limited thinking that insists that services be installed as if it was a loamy field.

Instead, the tragedy is one of imagination. There is value in a difficult landscape millions of years old that puts a natural limit on building within it.  In our late capitalist world progression is still seen as positive, growth is necessary, stasis indicates a slipping backward, rather than a stillness.  Must this be?  Why must Sudbury try to expand, and so expand into newer and more difficult terrain?

Building site behind the houses in the photograph above


the canadian shield, yesterday

17 September 2011, 12:30 EDTWhere the flat, polished Canadian Shield slides into Georgian Bay, and

17 September 2011, 5pm MDTan oncoming storm, east of Calgary, looking over what was Lake Agassiz 10,000 years ago, ice age meltwater caught between the Rockies and the Canadian Shield.

addendum:  well, that isn't quite right.  Evidently we are looking at the Bassano Basin, formed by the same melting of the Wisconsinan Laurentide ice sheet.  Calgary is 1048m elevation, Winnipeg in the Agassiz Basin is 238m, Regina, halfway between them is 577m.   The land sank with the melting of the glacier, and Bassano drains south into the Missouri system, rather than north as does the Agassiz system.  So somewhere on the great flat prairies that seems like a table top if you are driving across it, there is a series of different divides, different ancient watersheds. 


delicate landscapes

Georg Gerster. Orchard in Jordan, 2004

Clifford Wiens, grand old man of Saskatchewan modernist architecture, did a campsite on the Trans-Canada Highway west of Maple Creek, that looked like this orchard.  I stayed in it in the mid-80s and all the trees were thin and weedy, indigenous species such as poplar and aspen, saskatoons and willows.  The layout was like a miniature version of the Dominion Grid, each camp site a section.  It was enchanting, so deeply rooted in a historic organisation of land, so proud of prairie trees that flutter in the relentless wind, so very orderly and in its way, unsentimental about what is needed when one pulls off the highway after a long day of driving. Strangely I seem to have forgotten completely the heroic concrete entry pavilion that usually represents this project:

Trans-Canada Highway Campground Maple Creek, 1964. Photo courtesy OFOF Clifford Wiens and John Fulker.

In 2001, driving back from Halifax, I tried to find it, actually to camp in.  This after a whole day of driving across Saskatchewan and finding the network of small towns that had existed just fifteen years before completely gone, and this campsite abandoned.  The trees were tall and untended, some had fallen, one ripped off my radio aerial as I drove in thinking I might stop there anyway.  But it felt haunted, a tragic failure of provincial pride.  A most uneasy site.   It had been a small thing, approached with a brave sort of rigour.


building a forest

Colour-infrared image of Sudbury region using Landsat imagery from 1987. Vegetated areas appear in reddish in colour where urban/disturbed areas are green. The yellow boundary represents the study area for vegetation change detection and approximates the municipal boundary of the City of Greater Sudbury.

I heard this story on the news a while ago, but it took a while to figure out the keywords necessary to find it again.  In the lunar landscape that is the old Sudbury nickel mines and smelters there has, over the last 40 years, been a massive tree planting program, however because the soil is so acidic and toxic, there is no forest floor – that blanket of leaf mould, seeds, bugs, little animals, lilies and orchids, wild flowers, birds, from which new trees grow.  

When new roads are hacked out of the wilderness, such as the twinning of the Trans-Canada highway through Banff National Park, first the forest is logged, then bulldozers come and shovel and grade the top metre of ground into road bed.  All the little seedlings and mice die instantly.  

What Sudbury is doing is removing mats of ground cover and top soil from nearby road construction sites and placing them in the reforested areas that lack that essential floor that sustains a biodiverse ecology.

Pictures show the depth of these mats as about 4".  Is that enough?  Is the soil still toxic underneath?  I'm sure someone has figured all this out otherwise the project wouldn't be so extensive, however it does make one realise how very thin the skin is that supports life.  It also questions the expectation that it will be technology that reconstructs the toxic landscape of the oil sands: cutting and laying turf is not high technology.  It hardly even low technology.  Plants and insects are perhaps more powerful agents in reconstruction than we realise.

Land Reclamation 1978-2008. City of Sudbury.

City of Sudbury Re-Greening Program

there is a short video on this CBC report of the programme: