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The paleo-tectonic maps of retired geologist Ronald Blakey are mesmerizing and impossible to forget once you've seen them. Catalogued on his website Colorado Plateau Geosystems, these maps show the world adrift, its landscapes breaking apart and reconnecting again in entirely new forms, where continents are as temporary as the island chains that regularly smash together to create them, on a timescale where even oceans that exist for tens of millions of years can disappear leaving only the subtlest of geological traces.

With a particular emphasis on North America and the U.S. Southwest—where Blakey still lives, in Flagstaff, Arizona—these visually engaging reconstructions of the Earth's distant past show how dynamic a planet we live on, and imply yet more, unrecognizable changes ahead.

The following images come from Ron Blakey's maps of the paleotectonic evolution of North America. The first map shows the land 510 million years ago, progressing from there—reading left to right, top to bottom—through the accretion and dissolution of Pangaea into the most recent Ice Age and, in the final image, North America in its present-day configuration.

Venue met with Blakey in his Flagstaff home to talk about the tectonic processes that make and remake the surface of the Earth, the difficulty in representing these changes with both scientific accuracy and visual panache, and the specific satellite images and software tools he uses to create his unique brand of deep-time cartography.

Like film stills from a 600-million year-old blockbuster, Blakey's maps take us back to the Precambrian—but there are much older eras still, stretching unmapped into far earlier continents and seas, and there are many more billions of years of continental evolution to come. Blakey talked us through some of the most complex changes in recent geological history, including the opening of the North Atlantic Ocean, and he allowed himself to speculate, albeit briefly, about where Earth's continental crust might yet be headed (including a possible supercontinent in the Antarctic).

Many of Blakey's maps are collected in the book Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau, written with Wayne Ranney, where Blakey also describes some of the research and methods that went into producing them. Blakey also contributed to the recent, new edition of a textbook by Wolfgang Frisch and Martin Meschede, Plate Tectonics: Continental Drift and Mountain Building, a thorough exploration of landscapes disassembling and colliding over vast spans of time.

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The west coast of North America, depicted as it would have been 130 million years ago; the coast is a labyrinth of islands, lagoons, and peninsulas slowly colliding with the mainland to form the mountains and valleys we know today. Map by Ron Blakey.

Geoff Manaugh: When I first discovered your maps showing the gradual tectonic re-location of the continents over hundreds of millions of years, I thought this was exactly what geologists should be doing: offering clear, step-by-step visual narratives of the evolution of the earth’s surface so that people can better understand the planet we live on. What inspired you to make the maps, and how did you first got started with them?

Ronald Blakey: Well, the very first maps I made were in conjunction with my doctoral thesis, back in the early 1970s. Those were made with pen and ink. I made sketches to show what the paleogeography would have looked like for the specific formation I was studying with my doctorate. Three or four of those maps went into the thesis, which was then published by the Utah Geologic Survey. I’ve also done a number of papers over the years where I’ve made sketches.

But I was late getting into the computer. Basically, during my graduate work I never used a computer for anything. I kind of resisted it, because, for the kind of work I was doing, I just didn’t see a need for it—I didn’t do quantifiable kinds of things. Then, of course, along comes email and the Internet. I actually forget when I first started with Photoshop—probably in the mid-1990s. When I found that, I just thought, wow: the power of this is incredible. I quickly learned how to use the cloning tool, so that I could clone modern topography onto ancient maps, and that made things even simpler yet.

Another thing I started doing was putting these maps into presentations. There were something like five different programs back there, in the late 90s, but the only one that survived was PowerPoint—which is too bad, because it was far from the best of the programs. I was using a program called Astound, which was far superior, particularly in the transitions between screens. I could do simple animations. I could make the tectonic plates move, create mountain belts, and so forth.

I retired in May of 2009, but all of my early maps are now online. With each generation of maps that I’ve done, there has been a noted improvement over earlier maps. I find new techniques and, when you work with Photoshop as much as I do, you learn new ideas and you find ways to make things that were a little clumsy look more smooth.

Manaugh: Where does the data come from?

Blakey: It comes from various publications. You can get a publication and have that PDF open, showing what something looked like in the past, and work from that. Usually, what I’m working from are fairly simple sketches published in the literature. They’ll show a subduction zone and a series of violent arcs, or a collision zone. What I do is take this information and make it more pictorial.

If you create a series of maps in sequence, you can create them in such a way that certain geologic events, from one time slice to the next, to the next, to the next, will blend. It depends a lot on the scale of what you’re trying to show—the whole world versus just four or five states in the West.

Now, throughout the years from, let’s say, 2004 until I retired in 2009, I kept improving the website. I envisioned most of this as educational material, and I didn’t pay much attention to who used it, how they used it, and so forth. But, then, shortly before I retired, various book companies and museums—and, most recently, oil companies—have approached me. So I started selling these and I tried very diligently not to allow this to overlap with what I was doing for my teaching and my research at the University.

In the following long sequence of images, we see the evolution of the west coast of North America, its state boundaries ghosted in for reference. Sea levels rise and fall; island chains emerge and collide; mountains forms; inland seas proliferate and drain; and, eventually, modern day California, Vancouver Island, and the Baja peninsula take shape, among other recognizable features. The time frame represented by these images is approximately 500 million years. All maps by Ron Blakey.

Nicola Twilley: What do the oil companies want them for?

Blakey: They’re my biggest customers now. Usually, the geologists at oil companies are working with people who know either much less geology than they do or, in some cases, almost no geology at all, yet they’re trying to convince these people that this is where they need to explore, or this is what they need to do next.

They find these maps very useful to show what the Devonian of North Dakota looked like, for example, which is a hot spot right now with all the shales that they’re developing in the Williston Basin. What they like is that I show what the area might have really looked like. This helps, particularly with people who have only a modest understanding of geology, particularly the geologic past.

Manaugh: What have been some of the most difficult regions or geological eras to map?

Blakey: The most difficult thing to depict is back in the Paleozoic and the Mesozoic. Large areas of the continent were flooded, deep into the interior.

During certain periods, like the Ordovician, the Devonian, and parts of the Jurassic—especially the Cretaceous—as much as two-thirds of the continents were underwater. But they’re still continents; they’re still continental crusts. They’re not oceans. The sea level was just high enough, with respect to where the landscape was at the time, that the area was flooded. Of course, this is a concept that non-geologists really have problems with, because they don’t understand the processes of how continents get uplifted and subside and erode and so forth, but this is one of the concepts that my maps show quite nicely: the seas coming in and retreating.

But it’s very difficult—I mean, there is no modern analog for a seaway that stretched from the Mackenzie River Delta in Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and that was 400 miles wide. There’s nothing like that on Earth today. But the styles of mountains have not dramatically changed over the last probably two billion years—maybe even longer than that. I don’t go back that far—I tend to stick with the last 600 million years or so—but the styles of mountains haven’t changed. The nature of island arcs hasn’t changed, as far as we know.

What has changed is the amount of vegetation on the landscape. My maps that are in the early part of the Paleozoic—the Cambrian and the Ordovician early part of the Silurian—tend to be drab-colored. Then, in the late Silurian and in the Devonian, when the land plants developed, I start bringing vegetation colors in. I try to show the broad patterns of climate. Not in detail, of course—there’s a lot of controversy about certain paleoclimates. But, basically, paleoclimates follow the same kinds of regimens that the modern climates are following: where the oceans are, where the equator is, where the mountain ranges are, and so forth.

That means you can make broad predictions about what a paleoclimate would have been based on its relationship to the equator or based on the presence or absence of nearby mountains. I use these kinds of principles to show more arid areas versus more humid areas.

The next three sequences show the evolution of the Earth's surface in reverse, from the present day to, at the very bottom, 600 million years ago, when nearly all of the planet's landmasses were joined together in the Antarctic. The first sequence shows roughly 90 million years of backward evolution, the continents pulling apart from one another and beginning a slow drift south. They were mapped using the Mollweide projection, and, in all cases, are by Ron Blakey.

Twilley: And you paint the arid area based on a contemporary analog?

Blakey: Right. I know the modern world reasonably well and I’ll choose something today that might have matched the texture and aridity of that older landscape.

I use a program called GeoMapApp that gives me digital elevation maps for anywhere in the world. Most recently, they have coupled it with what they call the “Blue Marble.” NASA has stitched together a bunch of satellite photos of the world in such a way that you can’t tell where one series of photos come in or another. It’s a fairly true-color representation of what Earth would look like from space. So this Blue Marble is coupled with the GeoMapApp’s digital elevation topography; you put the Blue Marble over it, and you use a little slider to let the topography show through, and it gives you a fairly realistic looking picture of what you’re looking for.

For example, if I’m working with a mountain range in the southern Appalachians for a Devonian map—well, the southern Appalachians, during the Devonian, were probably far enough away from the equator that it was in the arid belt. There are some indications of that, as well—salt deposits in the Michigan Basin and in parts of New York and so forth. Plus, there are red-colored sediments, which don’t prove but tend to indicate arid environments. This combination tells me that this part of the world was fairly arid. So I’m going to places like modern Afghanistan, extreme western China, northern Turkey, or other places where there are somewhat arid climates with mountain belts today. Then I clone the mountains from there and put them in the map.

But you have to know the geologic background. You have to know how the mountains were formed, what the grain of the mountains was. That’s not always easy, although there are ways of doing it. To know the grain of the mountains, you need to know where the hinterland and the center of the mountains were. You need to know where the foreland area is, so that you can show the different styles of mountains. You have to move from foreland areas—which tends to be a series of parallel ridges, usually much lower than the hinterlands—to the center and beyond.

I use this kind of information to pick the right kind of modern mountain to put back in the Devonian, based on what that Devonian landscape probably had a good chance of looking like. Do we know for certain? Of course not. We weren’t around in the Devonian. But we have a good rock record and we have a lot of information; so we use that information and, then, voilà.

To give another example, let’s look at the Devonian period of the east coast. The big European continent that we call Baltica collided with Greenland and a series of micro-continents collided further south, all the way down at least as far as New Jersey, if not down as far the Carolinas. We know that there are places on Earth today where these same kinds of collisions are taking place—in the Alps and Mediterranean region, and the Caucasus region, and so forth.

We can use the concept that, if two plates are colliding today to produce the Caucasus mountains, and if we look at the style of mountains that the Caucasus are, then it’s reasonable to think that, where Greenland and Baltica collided in the Silurian and the Devonian, the mountains would have had a similar style. So we can map that.

This second sequence shows the continents drifting apart, in reverse, from 105 million years ago to 240 million years ago. They were mapped using the Mollweide projection, and, in all cases, are by Ron Blakey.

Manaugh: That collision alone—Baltica and Greenland—sounds like something that would be extremely difficult to map.

Blakey: Absolutely. And it’s not a one-to-one relationship. You have to look at the whole pattern of how the plates collided, how big the plates were, and so forth.

Then there’s the question of the different histories of particular plates. So, for example, most of Scotland started out as North America. Then, when all the continents collided to form Pangaea, the first collisions took place in the Silurian-Devonian and the final collisions took place in the Pennsylvanian-Permian. By, say, 250 million years ago, most of the continents were together. Then, when they started to split apart in the Triassic and Jurassic—especially in the Triassic and Cretaceous—the split occurred in such a way that what had been part of North America was actually captured, if you will, by Europe and taken over to become the British Isles.

Scotland and at least the northern half of Ireland were captured and began to drift with Europe. On the other hand, North America picked up Florida—which used to be part of Gondwana—and so forth.

One of the things that is interesting is the way that, when mountains come together and then finally break up, they usually don’t break up the same way that they came together. Sometimes they do, but it has to do with weaknesses, stress patterns, and things like this. Obviously, all time is extremely relative, but mountains don’t last that long. A given mountain range that’s been formed by a simple collision—not that there’s any such thing as a simple collision—once that collision is over with, 40 or 50 million years after that event, there is only low-lying landscape. It may have even have split apart already into a new ocean basin.

But here’s the important part: the structure that was created by that collision is still there, even though the mountains have been worn down. It’s like when you cut a piece of wood: the grain is still inherited from when that tree grew. The pattern of the grain still shows where the branches were, and the direction of the tree’s growth in response to wind and sun and its neighbors. You can’t reconstruct the tree exactly from its grain, but, if you’re an expert with wood, you should be able to look and say: here are the tree rings, and here’s a year where the tree grew fast, here’s a year where the tree grew slow, here’s where the tree grew branches, etc.

In a sense, as geologists, we’re doing the same things with rock structure. We can tell by the pattern of how the rocks are deformed which direction the forces came from. With mountains, you can tell the angle at which the plates collided. It’s usually very oblique. What that tends to do is complicate the geologic structure, because you not only get things moving one way, but you get things dragging the other way, as well. But we can usually tell the angle at which the plates hit.

Then, in many cases, based upon the nature of how the crust has been deformed and stacked up, we can tell the severity of the mountain range. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we can say: oh, this structure would have been a twenty-thousand-foot high mountain range. It’s not that simple at all, not least of which because rocks can deform pretty severely without making towering mountains.

This final of the three global sequences shows the continents drifting apart, in reverse, from 260 million years ago to 600 million years ago. There was still nearly 4 billion years of tectonic evolution prior to where these maps begin. They were mapped using the Mollweide projection, and, in all cases, are by Ron Blakey.

Manaugh: Are you able to project these same tectonic movements and geological processes into the future and show what the earth might look like in, say, 250 million years?

Blakey: I’ve had a number of people ask me about that, so I did make some global maps. I think I made six of them at about 50-million-year intervals. For the fifteen to 100-million-year range, I think you can say they are fairly realistic. But, once you get much past 75 to 100 million years, it starts to get really, really speculative. The plates do strange things. I’ll give you just a couple of quick examples.

The Atlantic Ocean opened in the beginning of the Jurassic. The actual opening probably started off the coasts of roughly what is now Connecticut down to the Carolinas. That’s where the first opening started. So the central part of the Atlantic was the first part to open up. It opened up reasonably simply—but, again, I’m using the word simple with caution here.

The north Atlantic, meanwhile, didn’t open up until about 60 to 50 million years ago. When it opened up, it did a bunch of strange things. The first opening took place between Britain and an offshore bank that’s mostly submerged, called Rockall. Rockall is out in the Atlantic Ocean, northwest of Ireland—near Iceland—but it’s continental crust. That splitting process went on for, let’s say, ten million years or so—I’m just going to talk in broad terms—as the ocean started opening up.

Then the whole thing jumped. A second opening began over between Greenland and North America, as Greenland and North America began to separate off. That lasted for a good 40 or 50 million years. That’s where you now get the Labrador Sea; that is actual ocean crust. So that was the Atlantic Ocean for thirty or forty million years—but then it jumped again, this time over between Greenland and what is now the west coast of Europe. It started opening up over there, before it jumped yet again. There’s an island in the middle of the North Atlantic, way the heck up there, called Jan Mayen. At one time, it was actually part of Greenland. The Atlantic opened between it and Greenland and then shifted to the other side and made its final opening.

The following two sequences show the evolution of Europe from an Antarctic archipelago to a tropical island chain to the present day Europe we know and recognize. The first sequence starts roughly 450 million years ago and continues to the Jurassic, 200 million years ago. All maps by Ron Blakey.

So it’s very complicated. And that’s just the Atlantic Ocean.

The Northern Atlantic took at least five different paths before the final path was established, and it’s all still changing. In fact, the south Atlantic is actually even worse; it’s an even bigger mess. You’ve got multiple openings between southwest Africa and Argentina, plus Antarctica was up in there before it pulled away to the south.

These complications are what makes this stuff so interesting. If we look at events that we can understand pretty well over the last, let’s say, 150 or 200 million years of time—where we have a good indication of where the oceans were because we still have ocean crusts of that age—then we can extrapolate from that back to past times when oceans were created and destroyed. We can follow the rules that are going on today to see all of the oddities and the exceptions and so forth.

These are the kinds of things I try to keep track of when I’m making these maps. I’m always asking: what do we know? Was it a simple pull-apart process? There are examples where continents started to split across from one another, then came back together, then re-split in a different spot later on. That’s not just speculation—there is geologic evidence for this in the rock record.

So, when it comes to extrapolating future geologies, things become very complicated very quickly. If you start thinking about the behavior of the north Atlantic, creating a projection based on what’s going on today seems, at first, like a fairly simple chore. North America is going on a northwesterly path at only one or two centimeters a year. Europe is moving away, at almost a right angle, at about another centimeter a year. So the Atlantic is only opening at three centimeters a year; it’s one of the slowest-opening oceans right now.

OK, fine—but what else is happening? The Caribbean is pushing up into the Atlantic and, off South America, there is the Scotia Arc. Both of those are growing. They’ve also identified what looks like a new island arc off the western Mediterranean region; that eventually would start to close the Atlantic in that area. Now you start to speculate: well, these arcs will start to grow, and they’ll start to eat into the oceans, and subduct the crusts, and so forth.

Again, for the first 50, 75, or even 100 million years, you can say that these particular movements are fairly likely. But, once you get past that, you can still use geologic principles, but you’re just speculating as to which way the continents are going to go.

For instance, the one continent that does not seem to be moving at all right now, relative to anything else, is Antarctica. It seems to be really fixed on the South Pole. That’s why some people think that everything will actually coagulate back towards the South Pole. However, there are also a bunch of subduction zones today along southern Asia, and those are pretty strong subduction zones. Those are the ones that created the big tsunami, and all the earthquakes off of Indonesia and so forth. Eventually, those could pull either parts of Antarctica or all of Antarctica up toward them.

But I’m more interested in reconstructing the past than I am the future, so I’ve only played around with those five or six maps.

This second sequence, showing the next phase in the evolution of Europe, begins approximately 150 million years ago and extends to the present day. All maps by Ron Blakey.

Manaugh: To ground things a bit, we’re having this conversation in Flagstaff, on the Colorado Plateau, which seems like a great place to teach geology. I wonder whether there might be another Colorado Plateau, so to speak, elsewhere in the world—something geologically similar to the extraordinary landscapes we see here that just hasn’t had the chance to emerge. Maybe the tectonics aren’t right, and it’s still just a crack, rather than a canyon, or maybe it’s covered in vegetation or ice so we can’t see it yet. Conversely, I’m curious if you might have found evidence of other great geological districts in the earth’s past—lost Grand Canyons, other Arches National Parks—that have been lost to time. How could we detect those, and where are they?

Blakey: This is indeed a great place to teach geology. It’s a great place to live.

As for Colorado Plateau analogs—it’s an interesting question. There’s an area in South America that I’d say is fairly similar. It’s got a couple of famous national parks that I can't remember the name of. It’s a smaller version, but it’s very similar to the Colorado Plateau. It’s between the Andes and the Amazon basin, part of the general pampas region there of South America. It even has similarly aged rocks. Parts of northern Africa would also be similar.

But you have to look at all the characteristics of the Plateau. Number one: the rocks are flat. Number two: the rocks have been uplifted. Number three: the rocks are dissected by a major river system. Number four: it’s a semi-arid climate. There are probably five or six defining characteristics in total, and I’ve heard many people say that there is no other place else on Earth that has all those characteristics in exactly the same way. But I went to an area in eastern Mauritania many years ago, where, for all the world, it looked like the Grand Canyon. It wasn’t as colorful, but it was a big, deep canyon.

In fact, the Appalachian Plateau would be somewhat similar, except it’s in a humid climate, which means the land has been shaped and formed differently. But the Appalachian plateau has flat-lying rocks; it’s dissected by some major rivers; it’s experienced uplift; and so forth.

The next two sequences of images, followed from left to right, top to bottom, illustrate the gradual evolution of the Colorado Plateau, where, in its modern day incarnation, this interview with Ron Blakey took place (specifically, in Flagstaff, Arizona. The earliest map included here depicts the Proterozoic; the first sequence ends in the Triassic. All maps by Ron Blakey.

Twilley: I’m interested in the representational challenges you face when you decide to make a map, and, specifically, when you’re in Photoshop, what your most-used tools might be. I thought it was fascinating when you said that the cloning tool really changed how you make geological maps. What other techniques are important to you, in order to represent geological histories?

Blakey: Oh, the cloning tool is the most important, by far—at least when I’m actually painting. Of course, I use the outline tool to select areas, but, when I’m actually painting, it would be impossible to paint these different maps pixel by pixel. I couldn’t do it. Occasionally, I will actually hand-draw some things in the flatlands, where I want to put a river system, for example, but, at least for mountains and rugged terrain, I clone everything.

Some times, I’ll cut and paste. I’ll select an area in the GeoMapApp, I save it as a JPEG, and then I can select it and copy it and paste it in, and I can rotate and deform it a little bit. Are you familiar with the warp tool in Photoshop? I use that a lot, because you can change the shape of mountains a little. If you do it too dramatically, it really looks flaky. But, if you do it right, it still looks pretty realistic.

This second sequence, also showing the evolution of the Colorado Plateau, begins with the Triassic and ends roughly 5 million years ago—basically the present day, in geological terms. All maps by Ron Blakey.

Twilley: And do you have certain filters you rely on for particular geological effects?

Blakey: A little bit. I like to use the craquelure filter. It actually gives you little bumps and valleys and so forth. I use that especially for continental margins. Continental margins are anything but regular slopes, going down to the abyssal depths. They’re very irregular. There are landslides and all kinds of things going on there at the margins, so I add a little texture with craquelure.

It can be difficult to use, though, and it doesn’t work at really high resolutions—so, what I actually have to do some times, is that I will actually copy a part of my map, take it out, make it smaller, do the craquelure on it, and then blow it back up and paste it in again.

A painting by Ron Blakey depicts a geological landscape near Sedona, Arizona.

Dee Blakey, Ron's Wife: I think the other reason that he can do what he does is that he paints. That’s one of his paintings, that one over there [gestures above fireplace].

Blakey: Well, I guess I should have said that right away, when you asked me why I got interested in this, because I am interested in the artistic aspect of geology. The artistic aspect of science, in general, but especially geology. Astronomy, for example, would be another field where artistic visualizations are useful—any time you’re trying to show things that can’t easily be visualized with something comparable here on present-day planet Earth, you have to use an artistic interpretation.

Anyway, I can’t explain it, but I understand color pretty well. I use the hue saturation tool a lot. I’ll select an area and then I’ll feather it, let’s say, because you don’t want the edges to be sharp. I’ll feather it by thirty, forty, fifty pixels. Then I'll take the slider for hue saturation, where, if you go to the left, you make things redder and, if you go to the right, you make things greener. If I’ve got a landscape that looks a little too humid, I’ll just slide it slightly to the left to make it a bit redder. You can also change the lightness and darkness when you do that. There’s also regular saturation. By killing the saturation, you can really kill the nature of a landscape quite a bit.

And I use hue saturation a lot. That took me a long time to master, because it’s really easy to screw things up with that tool. You start sliding things a little too far and, whoa—wait a minute! All of a sudden, you’ve got purple mountains.
Looming over and behind the town of Butte, Montana, is the extraordinary sight of an abandoned copper mine called the Berkeley Pit.

Like something from a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, the massively altered, red-stained excavation forms a stepped and sculpted backdrop for the old brick buildings on the hill downtown.

The landscape is made almost uncomfortably spectacular, precisely by this state of post-industrial abandonment, a Gothic ruin in geologic form, where the planet has been forced to reveal its inner structure and grain, the sublime whorls of a continent stripped of their surface covering.

The current managers of the pit, as if in recognition of its Romantic appeal, greet you with a small gift shop selling postcards and trinkets.

Then, after walking through an eerie, steel-lined tunnel that feels as if you might be stepping into an antique submarine, you emerge onto—what else—a panoramic viewing deck. It's a widescreen porch overlooking the toxic vista, complete with interpretive panels and a handrail to lean on in anaesthetic rapture at the brown, rising waters below.

This is both appropriate—the grandeur of the flooded mine is almost impossibly, darkly beautiful—and seemingly an act of spatial sarcasm, as the mine is one of the nation's largest Superfund sites.

Indeed, the Berkeley Pit became briefly infamous in the 1990s when a flock of migrating geese landed on the waters and, as public understanding would have it, died shortly thereafter, possibly in minutes, possibly the very instant they touched the water.

The reality of the story is just as fatal but not nearly as immediate, mirroring the slow-motion menace of the pit's still-rising waters.

"Butte, Montana, Richest Hill on Earth; 100 Years of Underground Mining,” map by Ted Duaime, Patrick J. Kennelly, and Paul Thale of the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology

During its operation, the mine extracted 1.5 billion tons of material from what was then known as "the richest hill on earth," in the process consuming several communities on Butte's east side. Following its closure in 1982, a new threat emerged: with the pumps in an attached shaft switched off, contaminated groundwater began gradually filling the 1,600-foot deep maw.

Laden with arsenic as well as dissolved copper and zinc, and with a highly acidic pH of 2.5, the pit water is expected to reach the natural water table by 2020—at which point, the rust-brown soup would, theoretically, stop rising. Instead, it will flow out into the surrounding groundwater, poisoning the town it once both consumed and sustained.

A local group called PitWatch, which keeps its eye on the ominous lake, provides the interpretative signage on the viewing platform. They explain that a water-treatment plant has been built in anticipation of this moment, ready to begin treating and diverting pit water as it approaches "Critical Water Level."

"The plant." the boards promise, "is designed to operate forever," siphoning off just enough water to maintain the toxic lake in an uneasy, eternal equilibrium—within sight of disaster, but never, scientists promise, actually reaching it.

The Berkeley Pit from space, courtesy of NASA.

A second claim to fame came to this abyss in Butte when local biochemists Andrea and Don Stierle found that tiny extremophile organisms—that is, organisms that love (-phile) extreme (extremo-) thermal or chemical conditions—thrive in the polluted waters.

Even better, the Stierles found, these extremophiles could potentially help to decontaminate the site—and, by extension, other such heavy metal mines around the world—but also, in the process, lead to the design of new human medicines based on their novel biochemistries. Indeed, New Scientist reported back in 2006, the mine is "a source of novel chemicals that could help fight migraines and cancer."

The idea of extracting new medical treatments from creatures living in a contaminated mine in the foothills of the northern Rockies adds a strange, sci-fi sheen to the otherwise matte, unreflective waters steadily swelling over Butte.

As we drove onward to Missoula along one of the city's many mineralogically-named roads, Iron Street, the looming rock wall of the mine followed us in the rear-view mirror till we got back onto the highway and left this town, nestled underneath its namesake hill's hollowed-out shell, behind.
Mike Elizalde of Spectral Motion applies make-up to actor Ron Perlman, as Hellboy.

Many of today's most original and bizarre visions of alternative worlds and landscapes come from the workshops of Hollywood effects studios. Behind the scenes of nondescript San Fernando Valley offices and warehouse spaces (if not outside California altogether, in the many other nodes of the ever-expanding global network of cinematic effects production, from suburban London to Wellington, New Zealand), lurk the multidisciplinary teams whose job it is to create tomorrow's monsters.

Spectral Motion, the effects house responsible for some of the most technically intricate and physically stunning animatronic creatures seen in feature film today, is no exception. Based in a small strip of anonymous one-story warehouse spaces squeezed in between a freeway and rail tracks, and overshadowed by a gargantuan Home Depot, Spectral Motion has developed monsters, effects, and other mechanical grotesqueries that have since become household nightmares, if not names.

Since its founding, by Mike & Mary Elizalde in 1994, the firm has worked on such films as Hellboy & Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Looper, Attack the Block, Blade 2 & Blade: Trinity, X-Men: First Class, The Watch, and this summer's (from the perspective of at least half of Venue) highly anticipated Pacific Rim.

Venue caught up with Mike Elizalde, CEO of Spectral Motion, on a cloudy day in Glendale to talk all things monstrous and disturbing. Our conversation ranged from the fine line that separates the grotesque and the alien to the possibility of planetary-scale creatures made using tweaked geotextiles, via the price of yak hair and John Carpenter's now-legendary Antarctic thriller, The Thing.

Elizalde, a good-humored conversationalist, not only patiently answered our many questions—with a head cold, no less—but then took us on a tour through Spectral Motion's surprisingly large workshop. We saw miniature zombie heads emerging from latex molds (destined for a film project by Elizalde's own son), costumes being sewn by a technician named Claire Flewin for an upcoming attraction at Disneyland, and a bewildering variety of body parts—heads, torsos, claws, and even a very hairy rubber chest once worn by Vinnie Jones in X-Men: The Last Stand—that were either awaiting, or had already performed, their celluloid magic.

The visit ended with a screening of Spectral Motion's greatest hits, so to speak, with in-house photographer and archivist Kevin McTurk—a chance to see the company's creations in their natural habitat. We walked back out into the flat light and beige parking lots of the Valley, a landscape enlivened by our heightened sense of the combination of close observation and inspired distortion required to transform the everyday into the grotesque.

• • •

Geoff Manaugh: I’d love to start with the most basic question of all: how would you describe Spectral Motion and what the company does?

Mike Elizalde: We are principally a prosthetics, animatronics, and special effects creature studio, but we are also a multifaceted design studio. We do a lot of different kinds of work. Most recently, for example, in partnership with one of my long-time colleagues, Mark Setrakian, we built anthropomorphic bipedal hydraulic robots that engage in battle, for a reality show for Syfy. It’s called RCLRobot Combat League. It’s pretty astounding what these machines can do, including what they can do to each other.

Battling it out in Robot Combat League with two robots—"eight-feet tall, state-of-the-art humanoid robots controlled by human 'robo-jockeys,'" in the words of Syfy—designed by Mark Setrakian of Spectral Motion.

Nicola Twilley: Are the robot battles choreographed, or do you genuinely not know which robot will win?

Elizalde: Oh, no, absolutely—it’s a contest. It really is about which robot will emerge as the victorious contender.

RCL is not only one of our most recent projects, but it also shows that, here at the studio, we can do everything from a very delicate prosthetic application on an actor, to an animatronic character in a film, to something that’s completely out of our comfort zone—like building battling robots.

I always tell people that, if they come in here with a drawing of a car, we could build that car. It is a very diverse group that we work with: artists, technicians, and, of course, we use all the available or cutting-edge technologies out there in the world to realize whatever it is that we are required to make.

Manaugh: What kind of design briefs come to you? Also, when a client comes to you, typically how detailed or amorphous is their request?

Elizalde: Sometimes it is very vague. But, typically, what happens is we’re approached with a script for a project. Our job is to go through the script and create a breakdown and, ultimately, a budget based on those breakdowns. We take whatever we think we should build for that script and we make suggestions as to how each thing should look—what should move, what the design should be, and so on.

Other times, we’ll be working with a director who’s very involved and who maybe even has some technical knowledge of what we do—especially someone like Guillermo del Toro. He’s completely savvy about what we do because he used to own a creature shop of his own, so working with someone like him is much more collaborative; he comes to us with a much more clear idea of what he wants to see in his films. Lots of times, he’ll even show us an illustration he’s done. He’s the first one to say, “I'm not an artist!” But he really is. He’s quite gifted.

The creature known as Wink from Hellboy II: The Golden Army, designed by Spectral Motion, including a shot of the mechanical understructure used inside Wink's left hand.

So he’ll bring us his illustrations and say, you know, “You tell me if it’s going to be a puppet, an animatronic puppet, or a creature suit that an actor can wear.” And that’s where our knowhow comes in. That’s how it evolves.

There are also times—with the robot show, for example—where they know exactly what they need but they don’t know how to achieve it. In those cases, they come to us to do that for them.

Twilley: Can you talk us through one of the projects you’ve worked on where you had to create your vision based solely on what’s in the script, rather than more collaborative work with the director? What’s that process like?

Elizalde: Well, I’d actually say that ninety percent of our work is that way. For most of the projects we work on, we do, in fact, just get a script and the director says, “Show me what this looks like.” But we love that challenge. It’s really fun for us to get into the artistic side of developing what the appearance of something will end up looking like.

We had a lot of fun working with a director named Tommy Wirkola, for example, who directed Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. He was the director of Dead Snow, a really strange Norwegian film that involved this group of young kids who go off to a cabin where they’re hunted down by a hoard of horrifying zombie Nazi monsters. It’s really grisly.

Anyway, although Tommy did have really good ideas about what he wanted his characters to look like for Hansel & Gretel, there were certain characters whose descriptions were much more vague—also because there was such a broad scope of characters in the film. So they did rely on us to come up with a lot of different looks based on loose descriptions. In the end, the principal characters in the film were total collaborations between Tommy, myself, and Kevin Messick, the producer, and the rest of my team here at Spectral Motion, of course.

I’d say that’s a good example of both worlds, where you have some clear ideas about a few characters, but, for another group of characters, there really isn’t a whole lot of information or a detailed description. You have to fill in a lot of blanks.

Mark Setrakian, Thom Floutz , and Mike Elizalde of Spectral Motion pose with Sammael from Hellboy.

Twilley: What kinds of things do you look for in a script to give you a clue about how a character might work—or is that something that simply comes out when you’re sketching or modeling?

Elizalde: In a script, we basically know what we’re looking for: “Enter a monster.” We know that’s what we’re going be doing, so we look for those moments in the script. Sometimes there’s a brief description—something like, “the monster’s leathery hide covered in tentacles.” That kind of stuff gives us an immediate visual as to what we want to create. Then we explore it with both two-dimensional artwork and three-dimensional artwork, and both digital and physical.

In fact [gestures at desk], these are some examples of two-dimensional artwork that we’ve created to show what a character will look like. This [points to statuette above desk] is a maquette for one of the characters in Hellboy II—the Angel of Death. This was realized at this scale so that del Toro could see it and say, “That’s it. That’s what I want. Build that.” This actually began as an illustration that Guillermo did in his sketchbook, a very meticulous and beautiful illustration that he came to us with.

The Angel of Death from Hellboy II: The Golden Army.

But that’s the process: illustration and then maquette. Sometimes, though, we’ll do a 3D illustration in the computer before we go to the next stage, just to be able to look at something virtually, in three dimensions, and to examine it a little bit more before we invest the energy into creating a full-blown maquette.

The maquette, as a tool, can be very essential for us, because it allows us to work out any bugs that might be happening on a larger scale, design-wise. Practically speaking, it doesn’t give us a lot of information as to how the wings are going to work, or how it’s going to function; but it does tell us that a human being could actually be inside of it and that it could actually work as a full-scale creature. It’s essential for those reasons.

Simon, the mechanical bird from Your Highness, before paint has been applied, revealing the internal workings.

Because you can show a director a drawing, and it might look really terrific—but, when it comes to actually making it, in a practical application at scale, sometimes the drawing just doesn’t translate. Sometimes you need the maquette to help describe what the finished piece will look like.

Manaugh: You mentioned animatronics and puppeteering. We were just up at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena yesterday afternoon, talking to them about how they program certain amounts of autonomy into their instruments, especially if it’s something that they’re putting on Mars. It has to be able to act on its own, at times, because it doesn’t have enough time to wait for the command signal from us back on Earth. I’m curious, especially with something like the robot combat show, how much autonomy you can build into a piece. Can you create something that you just switch on and let go, so that it functions as a kind of autonomous or even artificially intelligent film prop?

Elizalde: It really depends on the application. For example, when we’re filming something, a lot of times there’s a spontaneity that’s required. Sometimes actors like to ad lib a little bit. If we need to react to something that an actor is saying via a puppet—an animatronic puppet—then that live performance really is required. But we always have the option of going to a programmable setup, one where we can have a specific set of parameters, performance-wise, to create a specific scene.

For live performances on a stage, we’d probably want to program that with the ability to switch over to manual, if required. But, if it’s scripted—if it’s a beat-by-beat performance—then we know that can be programmable. We can turn on the switch and let it go. In the middle of that, you can then stop it, and have a live show, with puppeteers in the background filling in the blanks of whatever that performance is, and then you can continue with the recorded or programmed performance.

It really goes back and forth, depending on what it is the people who are putting on the production need.

The mechanical skull under structure of the Ivan the Corpse from Hellboy.

Twilley: That’s an interesting point—the idea of how a live actor responds to your creatures. Have there been any surprises in how an actor has responded, or do they all tend to know what they’re getting into by the time you’re filming?

Elizalde: They do know what they’re getting into, but it’s always rewarding to have an actor go over to the thing that you built, and stare at it, and say, “Oh, my God! Look at that thing!” They can feed off of that. I think they are able to create a more layered performance, with a lot more depth in their reactions to something if it’s actually there—if it’s present, if it has life to it, and it’s tactile.

A lot of times people turn to digital solutions. That’s also good, if the application is correct. But, you know, a lot of directors that we talk to are of the mind that a practical effect is far better for exactly that reason—because the actor does have a co-actor to work with, to play off of, and to have feelings about.

That’s one of the things that keeps us going. And, the fact is, with this business, no matter what walks through that door we know that it’s going to be a completely different set of challenges from the last thing that we did.

Mechanical puppet of Drake from a Sprite commercial. Scott Millenbaugh and Jurgen Heimann of Spectral Motion are seen here making mechanical adjustments.

Manaugh: About six years ago, I interviewed a guy who did concept art for the Star Wars prequels, and he had a kind of pet obsession with building upside-down skyscrapers—that is, skyscrapers that grew downwards like stalactites. He kept trying to get them into a movie. He would build all of these amazing 3D models and show them to the director, and the director was always excited—but then he’d turn the model upside-down and say, “Let’s do it like this!” So all the upside-down skyscrapers would just be right-side up again. In any case, this artist was then working on the recent Star Trek reboot, and there’s a brief moment where you see upside-down skyscrapers on the planet Vulcan. It's only on screen for about a second and a half, but he finally did it—he got his upside-down skyscrapers into a film.

Elizalde: [laughs] But, ohhh! For half-a-second! [laughter]

Manaugh: Exactly. Anyway, in the context of what you do here at Spectral Motion, I’m curious if there is something like that, that you’ve been trying to get into a movie for the last few years but that just never quite makes it. A specific monster, or a new material, or even a particular way of moving, that keeps getting rejected.

Elizalde: That’s an interesting question. [pauses] You know, I’d have to say no. I’d say it seems like the more freely we think, the better the result is. So it’s quite the contrary: most of the stuff we suggest actually does make it into the film, because it’s something that someone else didn’t think about. Or perhaps we’ve added some movement to a character, or we’ve brought something that will elicit a more visceral reaction from the audience—bubbly skin, for instance, or cilia that wiggle around.

I don't think I’ve really encountered a situation where I thought something would look great, but, when I brought it to a director, they said, “Nah—I don’t think that’s going to go. Let's not try that.” They always seem to say, “Let’s try it! It sounds cool!”

Mike Elizalde applies some last-minute touch-ups to actor Ron Perlman on the set of Hellboy.

We really haven’t had a whole lot of frustration—maybe only when it turns into a very large committee making a decision on the film. Then, I suppose, a certain degree of frustration is more typical. But that happens in every industry, not just ours: the more people are involved in deciding something, the more difficult it is to get a clear image of what it is we’re supposed to do.

Manaugh: When we first spoke to set-up this interview, I mentioned that we’d be touring the landfill over at Puente Hills this morning, on our way here to meet you—it’s the biggest active landfill in the United States. What’s interesting is that it’s not only absolutely massive, it’s also semi-robotic, in the sense that the entire facility—the entire landscape—is a kind of mechanical device made from methane vents and sensors and geotextiles, and it grows everyday by what they call a “cell.” A “cell” is one square-acre, compacted twenty feet deep with trash. Everyday!

But I mention this because, during our visit there, I almost had the feeling of standing on top of a mountain-sized creature designed by Spectral Motion—a strange, half-living, half-mechanical monstrosity in the heart of the city, growing new “cells” every day of its existence. It’s like something out of Hellboy II. So I’m curious about the possibilities of a kind of landscape-scale creature—how big these things can get before you need to rely on CGI. Is it possible to go up to that scale, or what are the technical or budgetary limitations?

Elizalde: We can’t build mountains yet but, absolutely, we can go way up in scale! Many times, of course, we have to rely, at least to some degree, on digital effects—but that just makes our job easier, by extending what is possible, practically, and completing it cinematically, on screen, at a much larger scale.

For example, on Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s new film that comes out this summer, we designed what are called Jaegers. They’re basically just giant robots. And we also designed the Kaiju, the monsters in the film. First, we created maquettes, just like the ones here, and we made several versions of each to reflect the final designs you’ll see in the film. Those were taken and re-created digitally so they could be realized at a much larger scale.

To that degree, we can create something enormous. There’s a maquette around here somewhere of a character we designed for the first Hellboy movie—actually, there are two of them. One of those characters is massive—about the size of a ten-story building—and the other one is much, much bigger. It’s the size of… I don't know, a small asteroid. There really is no limit to the scale, provided we can rely on a visual effects company to help us realize our ultimate goal.

The animatronic jaws and bioluminescent teeth (top) of the alien creature (bottom) designed by Spectral Motion for Attack the Block.

But going the opposite direction, scale-wise, is also something that interests us. We can make something incredibly tiny, depending on what the film requires. There is no limit in one direction or the other as to what can be achieved, especially with the power of extension through digital effects.

Manaugh: Just to continue, briefly, with the Puente Hills reference, something that we’ve been interested in for the past few years is the design of geotextiles, where companies like TenCate in the Netherlands are producing what are, effectively, landscape-scale blankets made from high-quality mesh, used to stabilize levees or to add support to the sides of landfills. But some of these geotextiles are even now getting electromagnetic sensors embedded in them, and there’s even the possibility of a geotextile someday being given mechanical motion—so it’s just fascinating, I think, to imagine what you guys could do with a kind of monstrous or demonic geotextile, as if the surface of the earth could rise up as a monster in Hellboy III.

Elizalde: [laughs] Well, now that I know about it, I’ll start looking into it!

Twilley: Aside from scale, we’re also curious about the nature of monsters in general. This is a pretty huge question, but what is a monster? What makes something monstrous or grotesque? There seems to be such a fine line between something that is alien—and thus frightening—and something that is so alienating it’s basically unrecognizable, and thus not threatening at all.

Elizalde: Exactly. Right, right.

Twilley: So how do you find that sweet spot—and, also, how has that sweet spot changed over time, at least since you’ve been in the business? Are new things becoming monstrous?

Elizalde: Well, I think my definition of a monster is simply a distortion: something that maybe looks close to a human being, for example, but there’s something wrong. It can be something slight, something subtle—like an eye that’s just slightly out of place—that makes a monster. Even a little, disturbing thing like that can frighten you.

So it doesn’t take a lot to push things to the limit of what I would consider the grotesque or the monstrous. At that point, it runs the gamut from the most bizarre and unimaginable things that you might read in an H. P. Lovecraft story to something simple, like a tarantula with a human head. Now there’s something to make me scream! I think there’s a very broad range. But you’re right: it’s a huge question.

Mark Setrakian of Spectral Motion working on the animatronic head of Edward the Troll from Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.

And sometimes the monstrous defies definition. I guess it’s more of a primal reaction—something you can’t quite put your finger on or describe, but something that makes you feel uneasy. It makes you feel uncomfortable or frightened. A distortion of what is natural, or what you perceive as natural, something outside what you think is the order of things—or outside what you think is acceptable within what we’ve come to recognize as natural things—then that’s a monster. That’s a monstrous thing.

Do you recall seeing John Carpenter’s The Thing?

Manaugh: It's one of my favorite movies.

Elizalde: My goodness, the stuff in that film is the stuff of nightmares. It really is brilliantly executed, and it’s a great inspiration to all of the people in our industry who love monsters, and to all the fans all over the world who love monstrous things.

Actor Ron Perlman gets make-up applied for his role as Hellboy, as director Guillermo del Toro and Mike Elizalde from Spectral Motion stop in for a visit.

Twilley: Have there been trends over time? In other words, do you find directors look for a particular kind of monster at a particular moment in time?

Elizalde: I do think there are trends—although I think it’s mainly that there’s a tendency here in Hollywood where somebody hears a rumor that someone down the street is building a film around this particular creature, so that guy’s now got to write a similar script to compete. But sometimes the trends are set by something groundbreaking, like The Thing. Once that movie was released, everybody paid attention and a whole new area of exploration became available to create amazing moments in cinema.

Those are the real trends, you know. It’s a symbiosis that happens between the artistic community and the technological community, and it’s how it keeps advancing. It’s how it keeps growing. And it keeps us excited about what we do. We feed off of each other.

Technician Claire Flewin uses her hand to demonstrate how yak hair looks stretched over a mold.

Manaugh: Speaking of that symbiosis, every once in a while, you’ll see articles in a magazine like New Scientist or you’ll read a press release coming out of a school like Harvard, saying that they’ve developed, for instance, little soft robots or other transformable, remote-control creatures for post-disaster reconnaissance—things like that. I mention this because I could imagine that you might have multiple reactions to something like that: one reaction might be excitement—excitement to discover a new material or a new technique that you could bring into a film someday—but the other reaction might be something almost more like, “Huh. We did that ten years ago.” I’m curious as to whether you feel, because of the nature of the movies that you work on, that the technical innovations you come up with don’t get the attention or professional recognition that they deserve.

Elizalde: I think your assessment is accurate on both counts. There are times when we see an innovation, or a scientific development, that we think could be beneficial to our industry; in fact, that happens all the time. There’s cross-pollination like that going on constantly, where we borrow from other industries. We borrow from the medical industry. We borrow from the aerospace industry. We borrow, really, from whatever scientific developments there are out there. We seek them out and we do employ some of those methods in our own routines and systems.

In fact, one of our main designers, and a very dear friend of mine whom I’ve worked side by side with for years now, is Mark Setrakian. When he’s not working here with us, he is a designer at one of the labs you just described.

So there is a lot of crossover there.

The mechanical skull of the scrunt from Lady in the Water.

Manaugh: That’s interesting—do the people who work for you tend to come from scientific or engineering backgrounds, like Mark, or are they more often from arts schools? What kinds of backgrounds do they tend to have?

Elizalde: Generally speaking, I think they’re people like myself who just have a love for monsters. That’s honestly where a lot of people in our industry come from. There are people who started their careers as dental technicians and people who started out as mold-makers in a foundry. In all of those cases, people from those sorts of technical fields gravitate toward this work because of, first of all, a love for monsters and creatures, and, secondly, a technical ability that isn’t necessarily described as an art form per se. Electronics people love to work for us. People who design algorithms love to work for us. Even people with a background in dentistry, like I say, love to work for us.

There’s really no limit to the fields that bring people to this industry—they come from everywhere. The common thread is that we all love movies and we all love creatures. We love making rubber monsters for a living.

The shelves at Spectral Motion gives a good sense of the workshop's range of reference. Highlights include the Third Edition of the Atlas of Clinical Dermatology (in color), The National Audubon Society: Speaking for Nature, Marvel's Fantastic Four, The Graphic Works of Odilon Redon, and a Treasury of Fantastic and Mythological Creatures.

To go back to your previous question, there are definitely times when I think we don’t get a lot of exposure for what we do, but there is also, at some level, a kind of “don’t pay attention to the man behind the curtain” thing going on, where we don’t really want people to look backstage at what makes a movie work. We are creating a living creature for film, and that’s what we want to put across to the audience. In some ways, it’s actually better if there isn’t too much exposure as to how something was created; it’s like exposing a magic trick. Once you know the secret, it’s not that big a deal.

So we do live in a little bit of a shroud of secrecy—but that’s okay. After a film is released, it’s not unusual for more of what we did on that film to be exposed. Then, we do like to have our technicians, our artists, and what we’ve developed internally here to be recognized and shown to the public, just so that people can see how cool it all is.

I think, though, that my response to those kinds of news stories is really more of a happiness to see new technologies being developed elsewhere, and an eagerness to get my hands on it so I can see what we could do with it in a movie. And, of course, sometimes we develop our very own things here that maybe someone hadn’t thought of, and that could be of use in other fields, like robotics. And that’s kind of cool, too.

Mike Elizalde sculpting an old age Nosferatu as a personal project.

Manaugh: Finally, to bring things full circle, we’re just curious as to how Spectral Motion got started.

Elizalde: Well, I became involved in the effects industry back in 1987. It sort of just dawned on me one day that I wanted to do this for a living. I had been in the Navy for eight years when it really started getting to me—when I realized I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do with my life.

I decided that I’d come back to my home, which is Los Angeles, California, and look into becoming a creature effects guy. I was totally enamored of Frankenstein’s Monster when I was a kid. I grew up watching all the horror movies that I could see—a steady diet of Godzilla, Frankenstein, you name it. All the Universal monsters, and even more modern things like An American Werewolf in London. They just really fascinated me. That was a real catalyst for me to start exploring how to do this myself.

I also learned from books. I collected books and started using my friends as guinea pigs, creating very rudimentary makeup effects on them. And, eventually, I landed my first job in Hollywood.

Cut to fifteen years later, and I had my first experience on set with Guillermo del Toro. I was working with him on Blade II. I had done an animatronic device for the characters he was using in his film, and I was also on set puppeteering. We became very good friends. That’s when he offered me the script for Hellboy and that’s how we started Spectral Motion. I became independent. Prior to that I had worked for Rick Baker, and Stan Winston, and all the other big names in town. But this was our opportunity to make our own names—and here we are, today.

You know, this is one of those industries where you can come in with a desire and some ability, and people around you will instruct you and nurture you. That’s how it happened for me. I was taught by my peers. And it really is a great way to learn. There are schools where you can learn this stuff, as well, but my experience proved to me that the self-taught/mentored method is a very good way to go.

On a tip from Nick Blomstrand, one of the students from Unit 11 at the Bartlett School of Architecture, with whom Venue had the pleasure of traveling through Florida for a week while they did research for their various design projects, we stopped by the former hollow-earth cult settlement—and now state historic site—in the purpose-built town of Estero.

Estero was founded in 1894 by Dr. Cyrus Reed Teed, who, following a spiritual awakening, renamed himself Koresh. The National Park Service (PDF) describes Estero as "a 19th-century post-Christian communistic utopian community."

The meandering but precisely designed network of paths laid down to connect buildings on the coastal site were all paved with hundreds of thousands of seashells so that the walkways could reflect moonlight, a geometric garden illuminated by the sky.

One of the central beliefs of the Koreshan community was that human beings live on the convex inner surface of a vast hollow sphere, with the sun and stars all burning inside, at a central point around which the surface of the earth is wrapped.

Image courtesy of the Koreshan Unity Collection of the Florida Memory Blog.

To demonstrate the concept, Koresh produced several small models: globes within globes that he then took with him to various fairs and public lectures, seeking to find (or to convert) fellow planetary free-thinkers.

Dr. Cyrus Teed and his hollow-earth globes at the Pan American Expo in Buffalo, New York, 1901; image courtesy of the Koreshan Unity Collection of the Florida Memory Blog.

As it happens, hollow earth cults were not, in fact, entirely uncommon for the era—Jules Verne's classic science fiction novel Journey to the Center of the Earth, for example, exhibits tinges of hollow earth thinking and even Edgar Allan Poe's "Descent into the Maelstrom" was influenced by ideas of a hollow earth with hidden entrances, amidst great and dangerous landscapes, at the earth's poles.

Indeed, as David Standish writes in his book Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth's Surface, it was Sir Edmund Halley, of Halley's Comet, who "gave us our first scientific theory of the hollow earth—in his formulation, consisting of independently turning concentric spheres down there, one side the other. Halley arrived at this notion, which he presented to the prestigious Royal Society of London, to account for observed variations in the earth's magnetic poles. His true imaginative leap, however, lay in the additional thought that these interior spheres were lit with some sort of glowing luminosity, and they they might well be able to support life. Generations of science fiction writers"—not to mention "communistic" utopians—"have been thankful to him for this ever since."

However, the Koreshan community at Estero sought to make good on the spiritual-scientific promise of these theories by taking them one step further into the realm of empirical testing and experimentation. That is, they attempted to prove, by way of homemade geodetic instrumentation and other landscape survey tools, that the earth is hollow and that, as they describe it, "we live inside."

Image courtesy of the Koreshan Unity Collection of the Florida Memory Blog.

Enter the so-called Rectilineator, a massive measuring rod—or, as science writer Frank Swain joked recently at a talk in Amsterdam, "a really big ruler"—that could be easily assembled and disassembled in large modular sections. Thus advancing down the smooth sloping beaches of south Florida, the Rectilineator would gradually do one of two things: either 1) it would depart from the earth's surface, thus proving that the earth, alas, was the way everyone else said it was and that we lived on the outside of a concave sphere, or 2) it would move closer and closer to the earth's surface, thus proving, on the contrary, that the Koreshans were correct and that the earth's surface was convex, slowly curving up into the sky, thus proving that we live inside a hollow earth.

The Rectilineator in action.

It should not come as a surprise to learn that the Koreshan beach survey of 1897 "proved" that the earth was hollow, thus vindicating Dr. Cyrus Teed in the eyes of the people who had followed him to what was, at the time, a subtropical backwater in a thinly populated state.

A module from the Rectilineator; image courtesy of the Koreshan Unity Collection of the Florida Memory Blog.

Things went downhill, so to speak, from there. After an ill-advised step into local politics, and a disastrous miscommunication with the local police force, Dr. Cyrus Teed was beaten to death, his theorized resurrection never came, and the cult slowly disbanded, leaving their settlement behind, intact, a town full of pseudo-scientific surveying tools abandoned to the swamp.

In 1976, what remained of the site was cleaned up and added to the National Register of Historic Places, becoming the Koreshan Unity Settlement Historic District. You can now visit the site—located alarmingly close to a freeway—and walk the shell-paved paths, wandering from cottage to cottage past a number of small historic displays, trying to tune out the sounds of passing cars.

Briefly, the aforementioned science writer Frank Swain, while discussing the Koreshan Unity settlement and the Rectilineator they used to measure the curving earth, provocatively compared their survey tools to NASA's so-called LISA satellite mission, which is, in Swain's words, also "a really big ruler" in space.

The LISA mission, more specifically, will use three laser-connected satellites placed five million kilometers apart in deep space to measure gravitational waves and the warp & weft of spacetime itself—a kind of Rectilineator amidst the stars, proving or disproving whatever theories we care to throw at it.

While in Denver, Colorado, Venue had the pleasure of making a childhood fantasy come true: an all-day backstage pass to the city's public library, complete with a private introduction to room after room full of maps, books, paintings, photographs, architectural drawings, and other collections documenting the people, places, and events that shaped the settlement and growth of the western United States.

The Denver Public Library building, designed by Michael Graves & Associates.

From a meandering tour of the new Postmodern library building, designed by architect Michael Graves in the 1990s, to a covetous browse through the city's old fire-insurance maps produced by the Sanborn Map Company, via a quick mention of the Denver Police Intelligence Files and a thorough bibliography of reference materials related to Denver's saloon cats, it was an exhilarating day of flipping through card catalogs, stepping behind closed doors, following off-limits stairways up to archives not usually open to the public, and learning more not only about the history of Denver and the West, but also about library science, more generally, and about our guide for the day, Senior Special Collection Librarian Wendel Cox, more specifically.

Venue's vote for best card catalog entry ever—a Franz Feneon-worthy novel in two lines, filed under "Horses. Biography."—was brought to our attention by Wendel Cox.

There's no real way, however, without writing our own Ulysses of the Denver Public Library—describing every unexpected turn of conversation, every artifact, every cross-connected historical reference (rabies to quarantine to the library's medical collections) and every other thing seen, read, or pored over in nose-to-paper levels of detail during the day—to encapsulate all that took place during Wendel's enthusiastic introduction to the collections; so, instead, we'll just focus on a few particular highlights, cartographic in emphasis and origin.

Senior Special Collection Librarian Wendel Cox shows us a hand-drawn map of New Mexico and Utah.

First, the fire maps.

The Sanborn Map Company produced, between 1866 to 2007, some of the most extraordinary and historically useful maps of the urban United States available in any collection today.

Almost all major municipal libraries in the country maintain voluminous back-stocks of them, their heavy pages over time thickened past the point of bendability by endless glued layer after layer of property updates, infrastructural upgrades, new construction, and the entire re-routing of streets and whole neighborhoods at a time.

Peeling, partially unstuck, and warped into curling waves like oceans, the pages play host to a century or more of built structures, renovations, and replacements, keeping close tabs on what can be insured, for how much, and under what circumstances.

These Sanborn maps are as near-total a catalog of the city's development over time as can be cartographically imagined, with almost every square inch built up into thick scabs of structures upon structures, upon even more structures.

Every pasted edge conceals a preserved strata of earlier revisions and additions, all but daring us to pick at it (we resisted), tempting us to pull ever so slightly at the looser corners, to lift up the surface layer and reveal the other city—there is the city and then there is the city, as novelist China Miéville might describe it, the two, surreally, existing in the same place at the same time—that lies beneath today's Denver, with its competing but complimentary property lines, a city out of synch with itself as you peel away the layers of history.

Each page, as Wendel showed us, turning carefully through the old volumes, is like a plank of wood at this point, archaeologies of layers laminated into something almost more like furniture.

These are books as Kafka might imagine them: enormous, absurd, and so preposterously heavy with the details of local history as to be physically unmanageable. They are books that could wound the librarians who handle them, slipping discs and offsetting spines, causing even historians to second-guess turning their pages.

But this (exaggerated) sense of physical threat is, of course, echoed in the book's content: as we navigated Denver's neighborhoods, we developed a sense for the city as a place of fire risks and dangerous proximities, a city of escape-assisting back alleys counter-balanced by wood-framed meeting halls, its spaces rated for their performance during events of conflagration.

And, in the process, we saw the city as a series of surfaces built up over time, fractally expanding across the Front Range.

The second thing—of many things—worth mentioning was a decidedly less antique item from the collection: a map and pamphlet, produced by the U.S. Geological Survey and compiled by Glenn R. Scott between 1972 and 2004, called Historic Trail Maps in Eastern Colorado and Northeastern New Mexico (you can download the accompanying 45mb PDF here).

As the map's introduction, written by former USGS Director Charles G. Groat—who recently resigned from the University of Texas in a controversy over financial ties to the fracking industry—explains, many of the "historic trails that were the primary pathways used by pioneers to open the Western United States" have been forgotten or erased entirely.

These trails, he continues, "have names that remain familiar today—Santa Fe, Overland, Cherokee, Trappers, Republican Fork, and Smoky Hill Trails. Some of those historic trails have long-since vanished or are now only faintly visible on today’s landscape."

Scott's map and pamphlet are thus an act of preservation, the USGS explains, saving for future generations the wide range of "historic marks left on the land by Native Americans, trappers, prospectors, early road builders, and settlers from about the 1820s to about 1900."

Put another way, Scott made a map of lost roads.

A long slice of the Glenn R. Scott's USGS map, showing lost roads, trails, and camps to the south and east of Denver, Colorado.

As Groat writes in his introduction to Scott's work, the routes and place-names gathered on the map tell the human history and usage of the Coloradan landscape:

Features of the maps include trails used by Native American tribes and trappers before the arrival of European settlers. As the westward movement continued, trading posts, immigrant and prospector trails, stagecoach lines and stage stations, wagon roads, and railroads marked that expansion, and those features are shown on the maps. From the cattle trails and trails over mountain passes to the towns and military camps and forts, the settlement and use of these lands are captured for posterity. Routes taken by prospectors during the great 1859 Gold Rush to the Pikes Peak gold fields are portrayed, as are the world-famous mining camps that followed, including Central City, Blackhawk, Idaho Springs, Georgetown, Fairplay, Aspen, Breckenridge, Leadville, and Cripple Creek. In addition, the routes traversed by early explorers such as Zebulon M. Pike, Stephen H. Long, and John C. Fremont are shown on the maps. The maps reflect the Hispanic and French heritage of much of the region, and the rich history of New Spain, Mexico, and France are imprinted in the names of numerous mountain ranges, prominent peaks, valleys, rivers, and towns.

Scott's own story, meanwhile, is fascinating—equal parts folklore and geological survey of the American West:

Beginning in 1964, Scott realized that in addition to relating the geologic record there was an entirely different story he also wanted to tell. He was fascinated by the historic trails he encountered during his geology fieldwork—trails used by Native Americans and by pioneers and prospectors who settled in Colorado and New Mexico. He resolved to document those trails before they forever vanished. Using aerial photographs, long forgotten historical archives, and other historical texts, he located historic trails all over eastern Colorado and northern New Mexico, and in 1972 he published the first of his 11 historic trail maps.

Indeed, in a nicely circular reference, Scott himself writes that "most of the information I used came from the Denver Public Library, where I was a volunteer in the Genealogy and Western History Department." At the risk of over-using the analogy, he was a kind of James Joyce of the eastern Rockies, going back through deeds of sale, acts of incorporation for now defunct road-building companies, and, no doubt, Sanborn maps, in search of old ways across the landscape.

In a much longer pamphlet listing the sources used for his map, Scott gives some examples of the sorts of narrative coordinates that are all that remains of certain trails:

Starting at Bergen's house and down the gulch southeastward by the Hendershott's house to Myer's Mill on Bear Creek thence by the most practicable route by Luther's place and Parmalee's sawmill to the Turkey Creek Road at the mouth of the gulch opposite Parmalee's water mill on Turkey Creek.


From Boulder City, Boulder County, up and along north side of North Boulder Creek as far as practicable and best route to Central City, Gilpin County.

To which he occasionally adds his own surreal story-form updates, as if the information presented is now that much clearer:

Route was changed as follows: from American Avenue on the west bound- ary of Empire City extending 3 miles up the south bank of Clear Creek, then crossing and extending 3/4 mile up the north bank, recrossing and then 700 feet up the south bank, recrossing and then continuing up the north bank on the route designated in the original article, then up to and thru Vasquez Pass, then on the original route to Bangs or Corral Creek, the western terminus in the original article, then outside the area.

Perhaps most evocative of all, there are also entries that simply read:

Route unknown.

These are the "old ways," as author Robert Macfarlane describes the similarly forgotten trails and routes that spider the landscape of the United Kingdom. In his book of that name, Macfarlane writes that, "once you begin to notice them, you see that the landscape is still webbed with paths and footways—shadowing the modern-day road network, or meeting it at a slant or perpendicular. Pilgrim paths, green roads, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes, drongs, warns, snickets—say the names of paths out loud and at speed and they become a poem or rite—holloways, bostles, shutes, driftways, lichways, ridings, halterpaths, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths."

The incantatory geography that Macfarlane refers to is in Britain, but, as Glenn R. Scott's map shows, the prairies, hills, and mountains of the American southwest have their own slowly eroding memory bank of old ways seamed into the ground by human feet, horses, and post wagons.

Briefly, Scott's labyrinthine explorations of trail folklore and historical cartography in Colorado also brings to mind a story published nearly five years ago in The New York Times, on an effort by Vermont's towns and cities to catalog their "ancient roads."

As the Times explained, a 2006 state law had given Vermont residents a strong incentive to rediscover their state's buried and forgotten throughways by allowing municipalities to claim them as official town lands (thus ensuring that they remain as public lands, unable to be claimed by private landowners). As a result, the Times reported, "citizen volunteers are poring over record books with a common, increasingly urgent purpose: finding evidence of every road ever legally created in their towns, including many that are now impassable and all but unobservable."

These "elusive roads"—many of them "now all but unrecognizable as byways"—are lost routes, connecting equally erased destinations. In almost all particular cases, they have barely even left a trace on the ground; their presence is almost entirely textual. They are not just lost roads, in other words, mere unstable geographies flashing in and out of county land registers. They are road that have been deterrestrialized: scrubbed from the surface of the earth.

As the Times acknowledges, "Even for history buffs, the challenge is steep: evidence of ancient roads may be scattered through antique record books, incomplete or hard to make sense of." Accordingly:

Some towns, content to abandon the overgrown roads that crisscross their valleys and hills, are forgoing the project. But many more have recruited teams to comb through old documents, make lists of whatever roads they find evidence of, plot them on maps and set out to locate them.

Like something out of the geography-obsessed poetry of Paul Metcalf—part map, part deep social history, part regional etymology for re-reading place names as the myths that they are—the descriptions found in these old municipal documents are narrative, impressionistic, and vague, perfectly in tune with what Glenn R. Scott found in Colorado.

Returning to The New York Times, for instance, these descriptions "might be, 'Starting at Abel Turner’s front door and going to so-and-so’s sawmill,' said Aaron Worthley, a member of the ancient roads committee in Huntington, southeast of Burlington. 'But the house might have burned down 100 years ago. And even if not, is the front door still where it was in 1815? These are the kinds of questions we’re dealing with.'"

As Wendel told us, these sorts of cryptic references to lost byways are not only of interest to local historians—attorneys form another interest group who consult the Denver Public Library's archives with some frequency. In Vermont, too, the Times reports that these acts of perambulatory interpretation came to be part of a much larger, although fairly mundane, attempt to end "fights between towns and landowners whose property abuts or even intersects ancient roads."

In the most infamous legal battle, the town of Chittenden blocked a couple from adding on to their house, saying the addition would encroach on an ancient road laid out in 1793. Town officials forced a showdown when they arrived on the property with chain saws one day in 2004, intending to cut down trees and bushes on the road until the police intervened.

The article here goes on to refer to one local, a lawyer, who explains that "he loved getting out and looking for hints of ancient roads: parallel stone walls or rows of old-growth trees about 50 feet apart. Old culverts are clues, too, as are cellar holes that suggest people lived there; if so, a road probably passed nearby." Think of it as landscape hermeneutics: peeling back the layers in the map to reveal a vanished landscape.

"Botanical Profile representing the Forest Trees along the route explored by Lieut. A. W. Whipple, Corps. of Top. Eng., near the Parallel of 35º North Latitude, 1853-1854." Prepared by J. M. Bigelow, M.D., Botanist to the Expedition. U.S. Pacific Rail Road Exploration & Survey, War Department.

Wendel led us on through the archive's sedimentary record of human movement across the Coloradan landscape, from a filing cabinet stuffed full of railroad timetables and accident records to an overflowing folder of newspaper clippings on Denver International Airport conspiracy theories. A mournful subsection focused on anticipatory documentation of future erasures: a gorgeous 1854 botanical profile of a proposed U.S. Pacific railway route and the business-like binders of the much more recent I-25 environmental impact assessment.

Our day in the Denver Public Library was itself a kind of lost trail, as we noted with amusement that various quirks of the building made it hard to remember which stairwell we had taken to get to a certain floor—and, thus, whether we could even access that floor or the collections Wendel Cox had in mind for us—and it became abundantly clear that even libraries have their own kind of curatorial folklore, a personal but by no means written down knowledge of where to find certain books, objects, files, or collections, what those artifacts, in turn, mean for other things encountered in the archive, and how certain narrative strands tie a library, and a landscape, together from within.

Many thanks to Myra Rich for suggesting that Venue should meet with Wendel Cox, and for making the introduction, as well as to Wendel himself, for sharing his time and knowledge so generously. This post contains a few paragraphs previously published on BLDGBLOG.
Perky's Bat Tower stands at the end of an unmarked dirt road on Sugarloaf Key as a striking, albeit unsuccessful, monument to both biological pest control and cross-species design.

Before the Florida Keys meant sun, sea, and Jimmy Buffet, they were famous for mosquitoes—dense, black clouds of them that hummed and bit without pause, spread malaria, dengue, and yellow fever, and drove visitors temporarily insane with irritation.

In the late nineteenth century, the Broward Palm Beach New Times reported swarms "so dense in some areas that it was impossible to breathe without inhaling mouthfuls of mosquitoes." A twentieth-century entomologist caught a terrifying—and record-breaking —"365,696 mosquitoes in one trap in one night" on an island just off the tip of the Florida peninsula, according to Michael Grunwald's book, The Swamp.

And, in the 1920s, hordes of mosquitoes were the major obstacle standing between Richter Clyde Perky, a real estate developer from Denver, and the success of his fishing resort on Lower Sugarloaf Key. The construction manager Perky had hired to oversee the project complained that "in the late afternoon, you would just have to rake the bugs off your arm" and that "they'd form a black print on your hand if you put it against a screen and suck all the blood right out of it."

In his search for a solution, Perky came across a book called Bats, Mosquitoes, and Dollars by Dr. Charles Campbell. A doctor and "city bacteriologist" based in San Antonio, Texas, Campbell had been experimenting with attracting bats to artificial roosts since the turn of the century, in the belief that they were the natural predators of mosquitoes. As an article in BATS magazine explains, Campbell initially thought that the design of bat architecture would be a simple matter:

"Can bats like bees be colonized and made to multiply where we want them?" he wondered. "This would be no feat at all!...Don't they just live in any old ramshackle building? They would be only too glad to have a little home such as we provide for our song birds..."

After a handful of expensive failures, followed by several months spent in the caves of West Texas, observing bats in their natural environment, Campbell came up with his pioneering design for a Malaria-Eradicating Guano Producing Bat Roost, "built according to plans furnished by the greatest and only infallible of all architects, Nature," and equipped with "all the conveniences any little bat heart could possibly desire."

His new tower, claimed as the world's first successful intentional artificial bat roost, was built next to Mitchell's Lake, ten miles south of San Antonio, in spring 1911. Malaria cases in the neighborhood decreased, Campbell cleared hundreds of dollars in guano sales, and the Mitchell's Lake tower was soon followed by more than a dozen more built to the same design, one as far afield as Italy.

Perky obtained the roost plans from Campbell in 1929, and constructed his own tower at a cost of $10,000. More than thirty feet tall, and sturdy enough to have weathered dozens of hurricanes over the past eighty years, the tower still features a louvered bat entrance facing the prevailing wind, a central guano removal chute, and a dense, honeycombed walls of cypress wood bat corrugation that function as roosting shelves.

Sadly, despite a lavish application of pheromone-doused guano as bait, not a single bat ever moved into in the palatial accommodations Perky had provided. (In fact, the first scientifically confirmed colony of bats in the Keys was only found in 1996.)

Today, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District regards Perky's Bat Tower as their founding monument, but relies instead on a full-time team of seventy-one employees armed with handheld foggers, spray trucks, four helicopters, and two fixed-wing aircraft from which to dispense regular doses of larvicide granules and pesticide sprays onto the landscape. They are currently contemplating a not uncontroversial return to biological control with the purchase and release of genetically-modified mosquitoes, whose offspring die upon hatching.

Meanwhile, Perky's tower is finally home to a winged animal. Standing in a pool of stagnant, mosquito-friendly water, the weathered pine pyramid is currently topped with an active osprey nest—architecture by animals atop architecture for animals.
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