Dispatch from Rwanda – May 23-25, 2022

June 5, 2022

On the 23rd of May, we transited west from Kigali along one of Rwanda’s radial asphalt spokes, past the royal seat of the abolished Mwami, from the merely hilly into the properly mountainous, and descended into the nebulous Albertine Rift among shoeless men who straddled the frames of their bicycles downhill at breakneck speeds (no feet on the pedals, striking exaggerated poses of thoughtfulness), children kicking soccer balls made from inflated condoms wrapped in plastic bags and covered with stitched banana peels, Alpha and Omega buses dangerously careening the s-curves, flipped freight trucks being uprighted, survivorless, with crowds of thick ropes. Colobus monkeys and duikers sheltered from rain on the roadside, punctuated by uniformed soldiers armed with AK-47s or tactical shotguns who patrolled the edge of the Nyungwe forest, and looked up at us from WhatsApp occasionally, disinterestedly, as we flashed by. 

We were ultimately deposited on top of a lush local topographic maximum overlooking Lake Kivu and, across it, the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

We spent the next morning (literally) running up and down mountain steeps behind a wizened, machete-wielding pygmy, tracking camera-shy chimpanzees through a barely penetrable fragment of the oldest, largest montane rain forest in Africa. 

Driving back down to the Top View, I had what I thought was a (mystic? Suprematist?) vision of a giant black cross floating among achromatic clouds in the distance. As it turns out, it was a cruciform methane extraction plant in the middle of Lake Kivu: a pilot project meant to tap hydrocarbon gasses that are dangerously pressurizing its lacustrine depths to the brink of limnic eruption for purposes of local energy production. 

That afternoon, we returned to Nyungwe proper. In the building where we hired our guides, they have the skull of the last elephant to have lived in the forest – shot to death in a bog by poachers in 1999 – mounted on a dais. The plan, now that they have poaching under control in that area (as they do throughout most of the country), is to reintroduce elephants within the next few years. Swapping snake stories and spotting an occasional Rift endemic, we set out in a downspatter for some sweet new sky bridges the park has slung up seventy meters (i.e., twenty-three stories) high in the canopy – which makes them either the tallest or second-tallest structures in Rwanda, depending on whether you count the spire on a skyscraper in Kigali.

Either way, they afford a hell of a view. 

Our last morning in-country, we 4x4ed a narrow, treacherous track of busted rocks and (soon-to-be-flowing) mud up and around a mountain on the edge of Nyungwe that 60,000 people were slaughtered on the flanks of in just one hundred days during the 1994 genocide – past menthol orchards and tea plantations caffeinating the Commonwealthy everywhere (else), and community work parties, and tiny kids with baby goats on verges overlooking our vehicular folly screaming, “Mzungu!” (“White people!”) or, open-palmed, “Money!”, and the occasional bare-chested man shuffling downhill with a whole tree balanced on his head, or people pushing old bicycles laden with hundreds of pounds of whatever uphill through mud crevasses, or heaping piles of sun-baked bricks pitched onto the path because who the fuck is going to drive up _that_?! 

We parked in a meadow at 2300 meters and plunged into a buffer forest of exotics grown by the government as an arboreal sacrifice zone – to offer locals something other than the incredibly slow-growing indigenous trees to illegally log when,  in their acute poverty, they need to make ends meet. At the far edge, where the vegetation blurs back into Nyungwe’s, surrounded by a once-a-fifteen-year bloom of flowering trees, there is a muddy upwelling – a mere burble – beneath some dark green ground cover and a white orchid that is the farthest source of the Nile. 

A few feet past it, the water is already gaining stream. We each drank cupped handfuls of the river’s cold clear beginning. And that was that.

Dispatch from Rwanda – May 22, 2022

June 4, 2022

Having followed a female tracker (wearing a Coco Chanel backpack and carrying an AK-47) and a former poacher turned porter who hacked through tangled jungle up the flank of a volcano with his machete, our legs and arms burning with stinging nettles (and a spirit level of burst blood vessels bisecting my right eye where I’d caught a whipped branch) – at the portal to a densely thicketed enclosure near the tripartite juncture of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo – a 500-pound gorilla named Agashya stood in front of us and basically said, “I will fuck you up.” The guides vocalized gorilla sounds for a while. He thought about it and replied with “fine.” Then trundled off and let us hang out with his enormous 23-individual family without beating us to death.

So, permission asked, and explicit consent given.

Photo by Nicky Twilley.

Throughout the experience that followed we made noises like we were clearing our throats, to indicate we were homies. Whenever the babies got too close, we made a different gorilla noise to indicate they should move away. They mostly did.

Gorillas getting pissed.

That said, I was playfully, repeatedly, punched and kicked by the larger juveniles feeling their oats. All of them were drunk as lords from chewing bamboo shoots that ferment in their guts. As I told Eva, who asked if they were scary: they were, sometimes, but they were also tender, and mischievous, and – at the risk of mistranslating their emotions into our own based on false cognates – loving. Of each other – not of us, of course. We were just a troop of scrawny, wretched-looking, occasionally amusing primates they put up with during their siesta.

After an hour, it was time for us to clear out. The second largest silverback, who the guides call “VP”, let us know this in no uncertain terms. First by charging me.

Wait for it…

Then, his final pronouncement. Crank your audio for this one. It might win me a Pulitzer.

The Ballad of Sassy and Lean [A Work in Progress]

May 30, 2022

Pursuit of Trivia – Part 2: The Mercy Seat

May 13, 2022

Hydrothermal slosh in the plumbing of the Phlegraean Fields produces a characteristic long period, low frequency (0.4-1 Hz) microseismic tremor. Persistent higher frequency tremors (in the 5-15 Hz range) associated with other volcanic features are also present. An obvious question: do lunar (and lunar-solar) earth-tidal effects influence this seismicity? The work of Simona Petrosino and Stéphanie Dumont (and others) suggests that the answer is ‘Yes’.

Here’s what I want to do. To honor Hekate Trivia – in whom Selene (moon), Diana (woods), and Proserpine (underworld) are conjoined – and whose seismic footsteps were the terrifying signal that the katabasis in Aeneid Book VI should commence – I want to erect a golden throne in a cave near the ruined oracular complex of the Cumaean Sibyl, and install a network of Raspberry Boom infrasound monitors in the grove of Q. ilex sacred to Diana that still surrounds it.

Because these low-frequency tremors are inaudible (human audition is in the range of 20 Hz – 20,000 Hz), I think it makes sense – following the lead of recent projects like Hertz by Graeme Marlton and Juliet Robson – to either wire the throne with a transducer that will cause it to shake, face a large subwoofer onto it, or both. The idea is to monitor local microseismic infrasound, filter the data, extract the relevant amplitudes, use them to modulate sound waves at the lowest threshold of human audition, and push those through the subwoofer and/or transducer into flesh and bone. I’d like to be able to do this in real time and, ideally, find ways to isolate and emphasize gravitational arpeggios detected in the holy forest by robot fruit as one sits below in hypogeal darkness on an electrified throne quaking with moon music played on a super volcano.

Field Works – Part 1

May 4, 2022

I initially considered building a bathtub-sized version of a magnetic field cube: a big clear tank full of a magnetorheological fluid, or else ferrofluid (on sale now for $230 USD/L!), with a hidden rotor built into its base (or else mounted on a teeter totter) to help re-randomize the distribution of the particles between applications of a large magnetic field. So, something like a Damien Hirst vitrine, but for field lines.

But why stop there? Imagine how beautiful it would be to build a colossal tank like this (I almost wrote “along these lines”) at, say, Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela, where lightning strikes up to 40,000 times a night for half the year. Something truly massive, so that whenever the lightning struck, the iron filings (or magnetite nanoparticles, or whatever) would organize architectonically at cyclopean scales: the vaulting ribs of an electromagnetic cathedral, of an ephemeral planetary gothic.

Jackass-in-Antarctica

April 30, 2022

Back in 2014, I wanted an athletic sponsorship to Antarctica. But because I’m only a mediocre athlete I needed a hook. My plan was to pitch Red Bull on a series of Jackass-style videos I’d film along the Antarctic coast. My colleague Jim Young said he could get me a meeting.

I was going to show up at their Santa Monica office mushing a team of huskies on a rollerblade-wheeled sled while wearing a full-length hooded fur parka, hand the valet an Igloo cooler full of raw steaks and tell him to “keep the engine running.” Once everyone was together in a conference room, I’d start laying out the vision.

For Episode 1, I’d jump into a deep crevasse. A ruggedized, accelerometer-activated Red Bull balloon would inflate around me as I plummeted, wedging me between the ice walls. Then I’d wait until a katabatic wind started up, and rip the cord on a propellant-powered parachute scoop. As soon as it caught that first roaring 200-mph gust, I’d be yanked out of the crevasse and dragged across the glacier, bouncing along in the balloon at terrifying speeds, probably screaming (not that anyone would be able to hear me).

For Episode 2, I was going encase myself in a big rubber ball with a handle on it, weighted so that it always righted itself handle up. Then screw a trebuchet to the top of an iceberg (anticipating recoil) and launch myself up over open water at another iceberg. The handle was there because I expected to fall short and/or smack into the side of the second iceberg repeatedly before I finally stuck the landing, and would need to be crane hooked out of the ocean and reloaded. I’d tell them about the time I asked some physicists from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory about my idea to ease public transportation in Portland by catapulting children encased in Nerf across the river to schools rather than busing them. They did some quick calculations, estimated the kids would pull as many as 20 g’s in flight, and expressed concern that, “I might liquefy some kidneys.” “So, impractical, but not impossible,” I summarized.

Episode 3 was meant to be a version of the old dollar bill trick. For context, orcas will beach themselves to capture baby seals, then shimmy backward into the water, where they’ll bat a seal pup back and forth like a shuttlecock until its skin loosens from its meat, then tear in. My plan was simple. I would hide inside a seal costume on the beach, attached to a cable. As the orca came for me, I’d be dragged just out of reach. The orca would try a little harder, and I’d get dragged a little farther bermward. And so on.

In the fourth and final episode, I would jet ski to a cove filled with 25,000 breeding pairs of emperor penguins, announce my intention to avenge Apsley Cherry-Garrard, tell them I would “take on you big fellas one at a time, and you little ones as fast as you can come,” and start in on a squawking, flapping, kung-fu melee.

At this point, gazing fixedly at the perplexed executives, I would let them know, quietly, but very intensely, that “I just have one question.” Then activate the ruggedized Red Bull body balloon, which would explode out from under my furs and envelop me. After waiting a few beats to let the fact of what just happened sink in, I’d slash at it with a big knife, pull it open, grinning, blade in hand, and ask them, “Are you in?”

Nazca wereorca carrying a knife and human heads (100 BC-500 AD)

PS

  1. To be clear: I have no intention of harming any animals (other than myself, perhaps) in the context of such polar imbecilities, or even irritating them overmuch. If it can’t be done without such an impact, it won’t be.
  2. In a recent interview Steve-O did with director Jeff Tremaine, they both seemed wistful about not reaching Antarctica for their short-lived MTV nature show Wildboyz. So perhaps I should pitch this directly to Tremaine and his co-creators of Jackass, Spike Jonze and Johnny Knoxville.
  3. Among the clutch of ideas I’ve laid recently are a few motley ones – obliquely related to my PhD work – that I’ll have to find some way to stage, document, and share with a very select group of friends (lest some too-casual acquaintance, horrified and with the best of intentions, try to 5150 me).
  4. Athletic sponsorship or no, I may be heading to Antarctica this December to climb Vinson Massif. I still also have half a wedding ring that’s destined for the Phlegraean maw of Erebus. If I can make it down to Ross Island for that chore before I return from the continent, it might be my best chance to shoot coastal footage.

Instructions for Cave Wall Drawings, 1-20

April 24, 2022

As soon as my friend Eric introduced me to Sol LeWitt’s instructions for wall drawings, I started having all sorts of (mostly superficial) ideas for how to riff on them – e.g., building out a 3D structure, designed in SketchUp and rendered with a game engine like Unreal or Unity, with examples of every piece LeWitt left instructions for drawn on its walls; or else, using his instructions as rules for procedurally generating infinite versions of the drawings on the walls of that 3D structure at some regular interval; or else, projecting those procedurally generated drawings on the walls of a brick-and-mortar gallery/museum/commercial office setting – and redrawing them every day; or even continuously, like a screen saver.

Why stop with the great indoors, though? One could use these instructions – or develop new ones – to draw on the sheer headwalls of mountains (although one probably shouldn’t; or, at the very least, better not do it in a permanently destructive way, lest one both risk the wrath of an Apu and an all-too-human ass whupping at the hands of one’s fellow mountaineers). 

One could draw them as intaglios atop mesas, or as some other sort of large-scale desert geoglyph only properly visible from the air or Earth orbit (never mind all of the many extraterrestrial possibilities).

One could draw them on cave walls. 

Palimpsest graffiti within the Cuma Caves

I’ve been thinking recently about a version of LeWitt’s drawing instructions adapted for the small caves that pock Monte Cuma beneath the temple ruins and oracular complex. To be executed (among the many historical graffiti already present) in scratched stone, pigment, char, etc. – or some less-permanent medium I can efface after photo-documenting the work. Or else, by manipulating the growth of microbial mats (if they already grow – or can be encouraged to grow – in such an environment) with biochemical “paintbrushes” (e.g., breadcrumbs of yummy minerals they want to devour, gases they’re greedy for, powerful light they want to creep toward or away from, etc.). 

Or perhaps just capture microbial excretions of ethylene, methane, etc. in little plastic baggies that might enable an art-oracle, huffing a quantity of this pneuma, to relay drawing instructions from Apollo to be executed in some other medium. 

Or cultivate mats of methanotrophic, etc. bacteria that will themselves consume pneuma, shit oil, and grow however they do – obeying the God’s drawing instructions directly (or perhaps this in combination with independently determined, anthropogenic markings: a collaboration with the local unhuman). 

Who knows? This sort of thing might even become the basis of a new oracular practice – i.e., presenting Apollo with binary choices of answers marked on a stone substrate and then monitoring whether a microbial mat grows toward one of them pronouncedly; or n number of choices, and, say, measuring the mat’s biomass distribution to determine the weighted probabilities at any given moment. Etc.

Pursuit of Trivia – Part 1

April 22, 2022

Only 3%-14% of the sunlight that strikes the moon gets reflected. Because of the moon’s sphericity, not all of that is available for capture here on Earth. Enough is, however, to briefly power an LED bulb using a residential solar array on a clear night under a full moon (so long as several capacitors are enchained). 

Presumably, this set-up could be optimized and scaled: more panels, more capacitance; perhaps even something like a ‘moonshine catchment’ or concentrator. Etc. The vast majority of the incident sunlight that hits the moon is absorbed and re-radiated as infrared light. Unfortunately, photovoltaic cells can’t produce electricity from IR. Yet. There are definitely teams working this angle, though. One in Saudi Arabia recently demonstrated a ‘rectenna’ technique for capturing thermal waste and converting it into electricity that shows, ahem, potential.  

In general, I think the sort of “lunar panel” one might devise if its materiality, modes of capture and transmission, etc. didn’t all need to be optimized in terms of cost-per-unit production is an interesting open question. Something I eventually hope to discuss with a friend of a friend, who has been described to me as an “electricity witch”.

This sort of hypothetical efficiency notwithstanding, I had some preliminary (and admittedly goofy) ideas last year to take advantage of the current state of the art. For instance, I wanted to fly a kite or balloon tethered by electrically conductive wires/fibers to a large desert solar array in order to pulsingly illuminate the body and tendrils of a sky medusa floating high above the sand. Or else to light a spheroid covered in LEDs, like an artificial moon powered by moonlight that floated directly below the actual one: two white orbs divided by black horizon.

Very 70’s album art, I realize. Probably don’t get me started about my idea to trigger a coronal discharge “laser” show in the Coral Triangle under the Milky Way (i.e., to create a planetarium whose stars are the actual stars) while playing Pink Floyd for a bunch of Sama-Bajou sea nomads on their boats.

Anyhow, it also occurred to me last year that the artificial moon could be sited underground instead. 

Which leads us to Hekate. 

Hekate’s Roman name, Trivia, refers to a three-way crossroad (thus uniting her with the lunar deities Selene and Diana; or else, Selene, Diana, and Proserpine in Hekate). Such a crossroads needn’t be planar, of course. It could also be volumetric – i.e., indicating X, Y, and Z axes. Which makes total sense, given Hekate’s role as the psychopomp of anabasis/re-emergence.

That’s a long way of saying that I’ve started working out the practicalities of a lunar-panel-powered installation for the grove (sacred to Diana-Hekate) of Quercus ilex that has surrounded Monte Cuma – the site of the Cumaean sibyl’s oracular complex – since before the Venusian mater of Aeneas dispatched her doves on his behalf to perform an aerial reconnaissance for the Golden Bough. Since before the Cumaean sibyl supplanted her Avernus-based “Cimmerian” predecessor. Hell, since before Avernus itself erupted 4,000 years ago, probably. 

Beneath the full moon, in a clearing of that ‘forest dark’, I want to use lunar panels – black fruiting bodies atop a buried rhizome of capacitors (Leyden jars I blow the glass for myself, ideally) – to feed energy farther down into a subterranean chamber – whether dripping it, like the slow build-up of an electrical karst feature, or decanting it all at once from a hypogeal Marx generator – for purposes of illuminating a chthonic moon. 

Or else, to provide exit lighting from Hades. Or else, to cause the branch of one of the holm oaks aboveground to glow aurically. Or else, to cook with moonlight. Out of obvious aesthetic considerations, I want to boil an egg with the stuff.

Gold is the Metal

April 19, 2022

According to John Emsley in the third edition of his weird The Elements, there is an estimated 0.2 milligrams of gold in a 70 kilogram human body. That’s probably a smidge massy for a global per-human average, but let’s assume it for purposes of this asinine post, so that 1 gram of gold = 5,000 people.

As of 05:57 GMT (20-4-22), the global population was estimated by Worldometer to be 7,941,528,342. So I’ll round that up to eight billion, slightly before our species does.

8,000,000,000 people * 1 g Au / 5,000 people = 1,600,000 grams of gold.

The spot gold price is currently $62.48 USD per gram.

1,600,000 g Au * $62.48/1 g Au = $99,968,000. In the antique spirit of rounding, let’s call it $100,000,000 USD of gold that’s currently locked up inside living human beings.

Not that I’m imagining ways to extract it from them or anything.

Bough wow wow yippie yo yippie yay

April 18, 2022

 Receive my counsel. In the neighb’ring grove 

There stands a tree; the queen of Stygian Jove 

Claims it her own; thick woods and gloomy night 

Conceal the happy plant from human sight. 

One bough it bears; but (wondrous to behold!) 

The ductile rind and leaves of radiant gold: 

This from the vulgar branches must be torn, 

And to fair Proserpine the present borne, 

Ere leave be giv’n to tempt the nether skies. 

Virgil, Aeneid

Combining two longstanding interests of mine – in geobotanical prospecting and the mythopoetics of the Campi Flegraean volcanic province – I want to bioengineer a ‘golden bough’ as a passport for the underworld by hyperaccumulating gold into a Quercus ilex, the holm/holly oak from which the auric branch was yanked in Book VI of the Aeneid.

That won’t be easy to do – despite Q. ilex being a good bioaccumulator of lead and other base metals – given how insoluble gold is under normal conditions. So I’m researching experimental phytomining techniques (e.g., ) for enhancing gold’s bioavailability.

Wish me luck.

PS,

On a related note…

La Porte de l’Enfer

The gates of hell are open night and day; 

Smooth the descent, and easy is the way: 

But to return, and view the cheerful skies, 

In this the task and mighty labor lies. 

Virgil, Aeneid

If it wasn’t Joseph Brodsky who wrote, “Some doors are only good for one’s getting out,” then it was me, imitating him.

I had an opportunity to visit the Musée Rodin in Paris last weekend and re-familiarize myself with The Gates of Hell. One of the other five existing copies of this massive sculpture is installed in a garden on the edge of the university I attended as an undergraduate. I used to sleep on top of it occasionally. And listen to what ominously sounded like knocks coming from behind the doors (a function of temperature fluctuation in the metal, probably).

That’s me in the death’s head mask, almost thirty years ago; the other guy, as it turned out, was the actual monster. Anyhow, although I am 99.9999% grateful that people didn’t carry cameras with them everywhere back then like they do now, I do wish I had a photograph of the time his sister and mine unsoberly scrambled up the front of the Gates together, side by side.

My mind is a graveyard of past selves, haunted by memories – bad and good. And I do, fortunately, have a snapshot of the poetry reading now-novelist Nicole Krauss and I delivered at the Gates back in 1997. I wouldn’t suggest that anyone then a-bed should think themselves accursed they were not there, or hold their aesthetics cheap while any speaks who was, but, as the poet Brandon Downing later recalled in his 2006 Verse review of a chapbook I’d just published, it was a very special occasion.

Meanwhile, on the shores of Lake Avernus (another of my old stomping grounds), you can still pay visit to the so-called “Cave of the Sibyl”, through which the Cumaean oracle is supposed to have led Aeneas into the underworld. It’s actually one end of a military tunnel Agrippa commissioned Lucius Cocceius Auctus to build between Avernus and Lake Lucrino during the civil war. Even so, local tradition puts the entrance to Hades – specifically, access to the shore of Styx – down one of its flooded stone stairwells; and the chamber of an even more ancient – Cimmerian – Sibyl down another. Unfortunately, thousands of years of bradyseism and the nearby eruption of Monte Nuovo in 1538 have fucked the subterranean complex up beyond ancient recognition.

Given all the intertextual echoes, this should also be the gate that Virgil led Dante down through. As you can see below, it’s somewhat more modest than the Rodin. Our attempts to find “Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate” inscribed on the rock above the portal were in vain, but I wouldn’t put it past a local to have sledgehammered it off and put it up over their waterbed.

Throwing out the bottom lip here in a Mr. Pitiful because despite what the Sibyl says about the gate of Dis always standing open, it’s actually padlocked these days. For this reason, I decided to name my bolt cutters “The Golden Bough”.