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An hour's drive east-southeast of Pittsburgh, hidden among the picturebook-perfect red barns, white fences, and green fields of the Lignonier Valley, lies an equally carefully maintained landscape of bird research—a nature preserve whose ponds and wildflowers have been augmented with mist nets, field microphones, a songbird recording booth, and a one-of-a-kind rotating flight tunnel.



On a recent morning, Venue joined researchers Luke DeGroote, Amy Tegeler, Mary Shidel, Kate Johnston, and Matt Webb, as well as several dozen warblers, catbirds, and a cuckoo, for a tour of the various devices of bird surveillance at the Powdermill Avian Research Center (PARC), part of Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Powdermill Nature Reserve.

Founded in 1961, PARC is the longest-continuously running bird banding station in the United States, and has assembled one of North America's largest census data sets on migratory songbird populations. Six days a week during the spring and fall (and only slightly less often during the winter and summer), DeGroote and his team head out before dawn to unfurl the Center's 61, forty-foot long, eight-foot tall nylon mesh mist-nets.

Over the course of the morning, until either the temperature reaches 78 degrees or the time hits 11 a.m., whichever comes first, these superfine, over-sized volleyball nets form a network of barely visible barriers stretched between trees, along the banks of artificial ponds, and hanging parallel to overgrown hedgerows, trapping both droplets of dew and unwitting birds from the atmosphere.



The majority of the nets have stood in the same place for the past half-century, raised and lowered each day to create a sort of avian calendar, marked by the arrival and departure of different species within the northern Appalachian landscape. Indeed, as we accompanied DeGroote on his rounds, he noted that the preponderance of warblers signaled that the spring migration was drawing to a close.

While carefully untangling a Kentucky Warbler and a stunning Scarlet Tanager (the first male of the season, apparently) from the first net, and stowing them in cloth bags attached to a system of color-coded carabiners he wore on a chain around his neck, DeGroote explained that the landscape is pruned and maintained to remain as similar as possible to its 1970s "early successional" state: arrested in a state of post-agricultural regrowth that will never be allowed to mature into secondary forest. The more things the banders can keep the same within their own research ecology, the more valuable their data becomes for detecting changes in bird populations and behavior. It is both a control landscape, anchoring the variables of the various experiments, and a landscape of control.



Bird-banding, we quickly realized, does not make for a relaxing morning. Every minute spent away from its normal activities eats into a bird's valuable refueling and breeding opportunities, so PARC's operation is set up with assembly-line efficiency. Back at the banding station, DeGroote and his colleagues unhooked bird bags from their necks and hooked them onto a washing-line pulley for processing.

PARC catches roughly 13,000 birds each year (their up-to-date tallies are posted online), 3,000 of which are recaptures. The other 7,000 need to be issued with a unique 9-digit number ("bird Social Security," joked DeGroote), which they will carry with them for the rest of their lives on a small aluminum cuff gently fitted around one leg. On the wall, behind the bird pulley, was a map showing all the places PARC bands have been reported, with sightings as far afield as Peru.

DeGroote held a bird in one hand and typed with the other, measuring and entering data on weight and wing length, all the while continuing a running commentary on sage grouce dance-offs, the particular chirrup a bird makes when it is released ("like it's saying 'potato chip'"), and the dietary choices to blame for the cuckoo's notorious stink (too many caterpillars). By blowing gently on the birds' stomachs, he revealed more data points: their fat stores (visible through translucent skin) and breeding condition.



The only pause in the otherwise seamless process came when trying to determine the birds' age. The quality of their feathers is apparently the main giveaway—baby birds grow all of their feathers in a hurry so that they can get out of the nest, and then have to regrow some to a higher standard. The difference is almost impossible for a novice to spot—the juvenile feathers have slightly less of sheen, and the plumage pattern is muddier—and it is sometimes quite challenging even for experts.

As we watched, hypnotized by the banding team's practiced, economical motions, PARC's bird processing line ground to a brief halt over the cuckoo, whose spotted tail feathers were of inconclusive quality. DeGroote pulled down a reference book to look for additional clues before playing it safe with a broad "older than two years" designation, and swinging smoothly back into action.

Even the architecture had been modified to account for this avian activity: a small hole in the wall, complete with a sliding panel, acted as a quick-release hatch for any birds not destined for additional research. With the banding as its baseline activity, PARC balances releasing birds quickly with the opportunity to conduct additional research, and this season was also hosting a West Nile virus swabbing station, as well as its own ongoing programs for flight tunnel and bioacoustic research.



We accompanied Amy Tegeler, the bioacoustics program manager, over to her recording studio, with a gorgeous and talkative black, orange, and yellow American Redstart in tow.

In addition to its mist nets, the landscape around PARC is also miked, with three pole-mounted "sky ear" recording devices, based on a simple plastic flowerpot design originally developed by Bill Evans.



As they migrate, most songbirds emit short, single-note nocturnal flight calls. No one, Tegeler explained, is quite sure why they do this—she likened it to trying to make a phone call while running a marathon—although the generally accepted hypothesis is that it has to do with maintaining flock spacing and cohesion.

Researchers are not only interested in learning about these nocturnal calls for their own sake, however: the idea behind PARC's bioacoustics program is that, by using software to analyze recordings of the nocturnal soundscape, it will be possible to conduct a remote, automated census of migration and species numbers.

This, Tegeler was quick to explain, won't replace bird banding. Instead, a bioacoustic survey can pick up species that aren't often caught in nets, can be used in environments that would be difficult for humans to reach or set up nets in the first place (remote rainforest and cities, for example), and offers the opportunity to conduct lower-resolution counts across a larger landscape (perhaps even as a citizen science effort—the microphone costs about $50 to make out of parts readily available at a hardware store and RadioShack).



While exciting, the technique is still in its infancy, and the Raven Pro software that Tegeler uses to extract flight calls from the hours of night recordings—cross-species cryptanalysis as app—also flags, unfortunately, each and every raindrop impact as a bird. After spring migration season, Tegeler estimates that she ends up with 75,000 audio clips, only 5,000-10,000 of which are actually calls. Sorting through the terabytes of data takes months.


Andrew Farnsworth and colleagues developed this 2006 guide to warblers' nocturnal flight calls using field recordings. A larger version, with sound samples, can be seen/heard at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website.

To help improve the call identification process, PARC has built a custom-designed bird recording studio, which it uses to capture a "Rosetta Stone" library of "clean" nocturnal flight calls, to replace the fuzzier field recordings currently used as reference.

To demonstrate, Tegeler dropped our Redstart into an "acoustic cone" (actually a black-out fabric cylinder built from a long-sleeved T-shirt and two embroidery hoops from Jo-Ann), hung it between four mics in a soundproof booth, closed the door, and sat down at the control desk with her headphones on. The whole set-up looked like something Paul McCartney might use to re-record a vocal track—that is, if he liked to sing suspended in mid-air in complete darkness.



With her headphones on, Tegeler played our avian rock star two minutes of American Redstart nocturnal flight calls recorded in the field, interspersed with silence, and the croak of a spring peeper frog as a control. From within the booth, the bird responded to the calls with four high-pitched squeaks—in the process, yielding a perfectly clean recording for Tegeler and other researchers in her field to work with.


Spectrographs of the nocturnal flight calls of the American Redstart (left) and Savannah Sparrow (right), from Bill Evans' spectrograph library.

With most common birds recorded, this migration season, Tegeler has been collecting data to try to establish what other information, beyond species identification, is embedded in nocturnal flight calls.


Zeep, double-banded upsweep, and single-banded downsweep nocturnal flight calls, from Bill Evans' spectrograph library.

"There are patterns to the calls, but we don't yet understand why, or what they mean," Tegeler explains, adding that the calls themselves can be separated into distinct types, named for their sound: buzzy, zeep, upsweep, downsweep, and chip. An entire acoustic ecosystem awaits decoding: some species will respond to other species' flight calls, others, for reasons known only to themselves, won't; and Tegeler can detect variations within a species' calls, based on an individual bird's age and sex.


Diagram showing the moon-watching technique developed by George H. Lowery Jr from Gatherings of Angels: Migrating Birds and Their Ecology, edited by Kenneth P. Able. The original caption explains that "as birds cross the disk of the moon their flight paths are coded as 'in' and 'out' times on an imaginary clockface. All paths are then analyzed to produce a migration traffic rate—the number of birds crossing 1.6km per hour."

Astonishingly, before bioacoustic research got started just a few decades ago, the only way to gather data on nocturnal bird migrations was a technique called "moon-watching," in which researchers and volunteers would point a telescope at a full moon from twilight until dawn, counting and identifying birds silhouetted against its disk.

Now, nocturnal flight call surveys are matched with radar bioscatter analysis in a new scientific discipline called "aeroecology," or the study of the planetary boundary layer and lower free atmosphere as a biological ecosystem.


A screengrab showing "Composite Reflectivity in the National Radar Mosaic" from the SOAR (Surveillance of the Aerosphere Using Weather Radar) website.

Meanwhile, bioacoustic bird monitoring is just one area of an emerging field of acoustic ecology: researchers are using sound to assess population shifts in species as diverse as whales and bark beetles, while the National Park Service recently recognized soundscapes as an intangible asset, worthy of historical protection, and has begun installing field microphones across their lands to conduct a system-wide acoustic survey.


An acoustically instrumented landscape at Kenai Fjords National Park; photograph courtesy the National Park Service.

From the ways in which humans use invisible information to see birds, we moved to the bird's final stop in their short, PARC-assisted detour—a device designed to test how birds see human infrastructure.



One of only two bird flight test tunnels in the world, this prototype was built in partnership with Christine Sheppard of the American Bird Conservancy, in order to test how birds interact with different window treatments. An astonishing number of birds—more than a billion, according to the most recent estimates—die each year as a result of flying into the glass facades of urban America.


Clouds reflected in the Time-Warner Center towers in New York City (left) and a temptingly plant-filled glass atrium (bottom left) are among Christine Sheppard's collection of bird-unfriendly buildings. In her caption to the top right image, Sheppard notes that "architectural cues show people that only one panel on the face of this shelter is open; to birds, all the panels appear to be open." All photographs by Christine Sheppard, American Bird Conservancy.


Birds killed by building collisions, collected by monitors with FLAP (Fatal Light Awareness Program) in Toronto, photograph by Kenneth Herdy, via the American Bird Conservancy.

Sheppard's goal is to measure "relative threat values" for different kinds of glass patterns or finishes, in order to develop a recommendation for the most bird-visible (and thus bird-friendly) glass. And the device she has designed to do that is extraordinary: a stretched-out shed combined with the trompe-l'oeil trickery of a Baroque cathedral.

Matt Webb, the technician in charge of these bird/window strike-avoidance studies, retrieved a bagged Grey Catbird from the banding station ("they love flying in the tunnel"), in order to show us how the system works. He released the Catbird from its bag into a tiny hole at one end of the tunnel, and, as it flew down the ten meter-long darkened shed, a video camera recorded the bird flying toward the plain glass control panel covering half of the tunnel's other end, rather than the crazy-paving patterned glass on its right.



As we braced sympathetically, anticipating impact, the bird was saved by an invisible mist net (the same kind the banding team use). It hopped about in the felt-lined tunnel, completely unharmed and making the miaow-ing sound for which the species is named, while Webb logged the result, walked around to the side, opened a small door in the tunnel wall, and released it.

This particular manufacturer's "bird-friendly" glass, Webb told us, has a 73 percent avoidance rate, meaning that out of 120 tunnel test flights (each using a different bird), 88 had presumably seen the pattern, and chosen to avoid it by flying toward the clear—and hence invisible—glass to the left.



Not all birds are suitable research subjects, Webb explained: Yellow Warblers "get confused" and fly around in all directions; our vocal friend the American Redstart often sees the safety net, rending the whole test moot; and House Sparrows and other cavity-nesting birds simply make themselves at home in one of the tunnel's dark corners.

The tunnel itself is an experimental prototype: it is based on a design originally created by Austrian scientist Martin Rössler to test free-standing glass panels used in highway barriers, and Sheppard is already fine-tuning the next-generation tunnel from her base in the Bronx.

Briefly, it is worth noting some resonances here between Sheppard's architectural design for tracking and framing bird flight and a body of much earlier work done by bio-media pioneers such as Étienne Jules-Marey, who performed his own controlled studies of bird flight.



Jules-Marey's work combined innovations in multi-lens camera design and wearable media for birds with an interest in the science of flight to produce astonishing documents of animal bodies in motion.



These often took surreal form, including a proposal for hooking birds up to a machine that could register individual wing beats.



In any case, at the moment, Sheppard's current flight-monitoring structure is mounted on a turntable so that it can follow the sun, thus ensuring that its mirrors bounce sunlight onto the front of the glass at the same angle all morning. Inside the tunnel, and for the birds that fly through it, it is always the same time of day.

When we followed up with her by phone, Sheppard explained that this feature, while ingenious, is not perfect:

On a cloudy day, for example, you're going to have a break in the clouds that's nowhere near the location of the sun, but it's still the brightest part in the sky, and that will throw the reflections off.

One of the things that we're most interested in studying is ultraviolet patterns, because birds can see UV and we can't, but the mirrors we're using to reflect light onto the glass surface take out more of the UV in light than they do other wavelengths. At the moment, our flight tunnel handicaps the UV patterns.


In Sheppard's new design, the entire tunnel is housed in a shipping container, which allows for a much more closely controlled, and potentially more sophisticated, set of lighting parameters, in which an array of "daylight" and UV bulbs can be set up to mimic a variety of natural solar conditions.

The shipping container also weather-proofs the structure: although we visited on a sunny, calm morning, the current tunnel has been known to pivot with a sudden gust, giving bystanders a nasty shock.

Most important, however, is the fact that the new tunnel will increase capacity. "With only one tunnel," explains Sheppard, "we actually can't do enough testing to conduct our own research and test prototypes for glass companies that are trying to develop products for bird-friendly design. And, because we definitely want to encourage the market for bird-friendly products, we've been doing a lot of commercial testing over the last two years."



Even as scientists move toward a better understanding of avian perception (Sheppard told us of one project to build a model of the avian retina using a digital camera equipped with a series of specially designed filters), they still can't necessarily model how the bird will react to that visual information—"the 'what do the birds think about this?' question," as Sheppard puts it.

Will a bird think it can go through a space in between stripes? What about if the lines are diagonal? Will birds perceive a cobweb pattern as an obstacle?

Although the American Bird Association already knows (and recommends) several strategies for bird-friendly design, their goal is not to arrive at a single avian-endorsed glass solution. Instead, Sheppard says:

What we want is to create the situation where architects have maximum flexibility, and they don't feel like bird-friendly design is a burden. We're not trying to get them to stop using glass, and we're not trying to make them to design ugly buildings; we want to give them lots of different possibilities. To do that, we have to ask these birds a lot of different questions.

In other words, PARC's spinning, elongated garden shed, with its trompe l'oeil sky, wing mirrors, and slide-in glass panels, is a cross-species translation tool—a structural device designed to test whether the built environment makes perceptual sense both to people and to birds.



As the last stop on our tour of this well-oiled bird surveillance machine disguised as a nature reserve, the flight tunnel provided an intriguing counter-perspective, asking, in this artificially shaped landscape disguised as a natural preserve, how birds see our habitat and what their perceptual frame might require from our own future designs.


Fort Irwin is a U.S. army base nearly the size of Rhode Island, located in the Mojave Desert about an hour's drive northeast of Barstow, California. There you will find the National Training Center, or NTC, at which all U.S. troops, from all the services, spend a twenty-one day rotation before they deploy overseas.



Sprawling and often infernally hot in the summer months, the base offers free tours, open to the public, twice a month. Venue made the trip, cameras in hand and notebooks at the ready, to learn more about the simulated battlefields in which imaginary conflicts loop, day after day, without end.



Coincidentally, as we explored the Painted Rocks located just outside the gate while waiting for the tour to start, an old acquaintance from Los Angeles—architect and geographer Rick Miller—pulled up in his Prius, also early for the same tour.



We laughed, said hello, and caught up about a class Rick had been teaching at UCLA about the military defense of L.A. from World War II to the present. An artificial battlefield, beyond even the furthest fringes of Los Angeles, Fort Irwin thus seemed like an appropriate place to meet.



We were soon joined by a small group of other visitors—consisting, for the most part, of family members of soldiers deployed on the base, as well as two architecture students from Montréal—before a large white tour bus rolled up across the gravel.

Renita, a former combat videographer who now handles public affairs at Fort Irwin, took our names, IDs, and signatures for reasons of liability (we would be seeing live explosions and simulated gunfire, and there was always the risk that someone might get hurt).



The day began with a glimpse into the economics and culture of how a nation prepares its soldiers for war; an orientation, of sorts, before we headed out to visit one of fifteen artificial cities scattered throughout the base.



In the plush lecture hall used for "After Action Reviews"—and thus, Renita apologized, air-conditioned to a morgue-like chill in order to keep soldiers awake as their adrenalin levels crash—we received a briefing from the base's commander, Brigadier General Terry Ferrell.

With pride, Ferrell noted that Fort Irwin is the only place where the U.S. military can train using all of the systems it will later use in theater. The base's 1,000 square miles of desert is large enough to allow what Ferrell called "great maneuverability"; its airspace is restricted; and its truly remote location ensures an uncluttered electromagnetic spectrum, meaning that troops can practice both collection and jamming. These latter techniques even include interfering with GPS, providing they warn the Federal Aviation Administration in advance.

Oddly, it's worth noting that Fort Irwin also houses the electromagnetically sensitive Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex, part of NASA's global Deep Space Network. As science writer Oliver Morton explains in a paper called "Moonshine and Glue: A Thirteen-Unit Guide to the Extreme Edge of Astrophysics" (PDF), "when digitized battalions slug it out with all the tools of modern warfare, radio, radar, and electronic warfare emissions fly as freely around Fort Irwin as bullets in a battle. For people listening to signals from distant spacecraft on pre-arranged frequency bands, this noise is not too much of a problem." However, he adds, for other, far more sensitive experiments, "radio interference from the military next door is its biggest headache."



Unusually for the American West, where mineral rights are often transferred separately, the military also owns the ground beneath Fort Irwin, which means that they have carved out an extensive network of tunnels and caves from which to flush pretend insurgents.

This 120-person strong insurgent troop is drawn from the base's own Blackhorse Regiment, a division of the U.S. Army that exists solely to provide opposition. Whatever the war, the 11th Armored is always the pretend enemy. According to Ferrell, their current role as Afghan rebels is widely envied: they receive specialized training (for example, in building IEDs) and are held to "reduced grooming standards," while their mission is simply to "stay alive and wreak havoc."

If they die during a NTC simulation, they have to shave and go back on detail on the base, Ferrell added, so the incentive to evade their American opponents is strong.



In addition to the in-house enemy regiment, there is an entire 2,200-person logistics corps dedicated to rotating units in and out of Fort Irwin and equipping them for training. Every ordnance the United States military has, with the exception of biological and chemical weapons, is used during NTC simulations, Ferrell told us. What's more, in the interests of realism (and expense be damned), troops train using their own equipment, which means that bringing in, for example, the 10th Mountain Division (on rotation during our visit), also means transporting their tanks and helicopters from their home base at Fort Drum, New York, to California, and back again.

Units are deployed to Fort Irwin for twenty-one days, fourteen of which are spent in what Fort Irwin refers to as "The Box" (as in "sandbox"). This is the vast desert training area that includes fifteen simulated towns and the previously mentioned tunnel and caves, as well as expansive gunnery ranges and tank battle arenas.

Following our briefing, we headed out to the largest mock village in the complex, the Afghan town of Ertebat Shar, originally known, during its Iraqi incarnation, as Medina Wasl. Before we re-boarded the bus, Renita issued a stern warning: "'Afghanistan' is not modernized with plumbing. There are Porta-Johns, but I wanted to let you know the situation before we roll out there."



A twenty-minute drive later, through relatively featureless desert, our visit to "Afghanistan" began with a casual walk down the main street, where we were greeted by actors trying to sell us plastic loaves of bread and piles of fake meat. Fort Irwin employs more than 350 civilian role-players, many of whom are of Middle Eastern origin, although Ferrell explained that they are still trying to recruit more Afghans, in order "to provide the texture of the culture."

The atmosphere is strangely good-natured, which was at least partially amplified by a feeling of mild embarrassment, as the rules of engagement, so to speak, are not immediately clear; you, the visitor, are obviously aware of the fact that these people are paid actors, but it feels distinctly odd to slip into character yourself and pretend that you might want to buy some bread.



In fact, it's impossible not to wonder how peculiar it must be for a refugee, or even a second-generation immigrant, from Iraq or Afghanistan, to pretend to be a baker in a simulated "native" village on a military base in the California desert, only to see tourists in shorts and sunglasses walking through, smiling uncomfortably and taking photos with their phones before strolling away without saying anything.



Even more peculiarly, as we reached the end of the street, the market—and all the actors in it—vanished behind us, dispersing back into the fake city, as if only called into being by our presence.



By now, with the opening act over, we were stopped in front of the town's "Lyndon Marcus International Hotel" to take stock of our surroundings. In his earlier briefing, Ferrell had described the simulated villages' close attention to detail—apparently, the footprint for the village came from actual satellite imagery of Baghdad, in order to accurately recreate street widths, and the step sizes inside buildings are Iraqi, rather than U.S., standard.

Dimensions notwithstanding, however, this is a city of cargo containers, their Orientalized facades slapped up and plastered on like make-up. Seen from above, the wooden frames of the illusion become visible and it becomes more and more clear that you are on a film set, an immersive theater of war.



This kind of test village has a long history in U.S. war planning. As journalist Tom Vanderbilt writes in his book Survival City, "In March 1943, with bombing attacks on cities being intensified by all sides, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began construction at Dugway [Utah] on a series of 'enemy villages,' detailed reproductions of the typical housing found in the industrial districts of cities in Germany and Japan."

The point of the villages at Dugway, however, was not to train soldiers in urban warfare—with, for instance, simulated street battles or house-to-house clearances—but simply to test the burn capacity of the structures themselves. What sorts of explosives should the U.S. use? How much damage would result? The attention to architectural detail was simply a subset of this larger, more violent inquiry. As Vanderbilt explains, bombs at Dugway "were tested as to their effectiveness against architecture: How well the bombs penetrated the roofs of buildings (without penetrating too far), where they lodged in the building, and the intensity of the resulting fire."

During the Cold War, combat moved away from urban settings, and Fort Irwin's desert sandbox became the stage for massive set-piece tank battles against the "Soviet" Blackhorse Cavalry. But, in 1993, following the embarrassment of the Black Hawk Down incident in Mogadishu, Fort Irwin hosted its first urban warfare, or MOUT (Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain) exercise. This response was part of a growing realization shared amongst the armed forces, national security experts, and military contractors that future wars would again take the city as their battlefield.



As Russell W. Glenn of the RAND Corporation puts it bluntly in his report Combat in Hell: A Consideration of Constrained Urban Warfare, "Armed forces are ever more likely to fight in cities as the world becomes increasingly urbanized."

Massed, professional, and essentially symmetrical armies no longer confront one another on the broad forests and plains of central Europe, the new tactical thinking goes; instead, undeclared combatants living beside—sometimes even with—families in stacked apartment blocks or tight-knit courtyards send out the occasional missile, bullet, or improvised explosive device from a logistically confusing tangle of streets, and "war" becomes the spatial process of determining how to respond.

At Fort Irwin, mock villages began to pop up in the desert. They started out as "sheds bought from Shed World," Ferrell told us, before being replaced by shipping containers, which, in turn, have been enhanced with stone siding, mosque domes, awnings, and street signs, and, in some cases, even with internal staircases and furniture, too. Indeed, Ertebat Shar/Medina Wasl began its simulated existence in 2007, with just thirteen buildings, but has since expanded to include more than two hundred structures.

The point of these architectural reproductions is no longer, as in the World War II test villages of Dugway, to find better or more efficient methods of architectural destruction; instead, these ersatz buildings and villages are used to equip troops to better navigate the complexity of urban structures—both physical, and, perhaps most importantly, socio-cultural.

In other words, at the most basic level, soldiers will use Fort Irwin's facsimile villages to practice clearing structures and navigating unmapped, roofed alleyways through cities without clear satellite communications links. However, at least in the training activities accessible to public visitors, the architecture is primarily a stage set for the theater of human relations: a backdrop for meeting and befriending locals (again, paid actors), controlling crowds (actors), rescuing casualties (Fort Irwin's roster of eight amputees are its most highly paid actors, we learned, in recompense for being literally dragged around during simulated combat operations), and, ultimately, locating and eliminating the bad guys (the Blackhorse regiment).



In the series of set-piece training exercises that take place within the village, the action is coordinated from above by a ring of walkie-talkie connected scenographers, including an extensive internal media presence, who film all of the simulations for later replay in combat analysis. The sense of being on an elaborate, extremely detailed film set is here made explicit. In fact, visitors are openly encouraged to participate in this mediation of the events: we were repeatedly urged to take as many photographs as possible and to share the resulting images on Facebook, Twitter, and more.



Appropriately equipped with ear plugs and eye protection, we filed upstairs to a veranda overlooking one of the village's main throughways, where we joined the "Observer Coaches" and film crew, taking our positions for the afternoon's scripted exercise.



Loud explosions, smoke, and fairly grisly combat scenes ensued—and thus, despite their simulated nature, involving Hollywood-style prosthetics and fake blood, please be warned that many of the forthcoming photos could still be quite upsetting for some viewers.



The afternoon's action began quietly enough, with an American soldier on patrol waving off a man trying to sell him a melon. Suddenly, a truck bomb detonated, smoke filled the air, and an injured woman began to wail, while a soldier slumped against a wall, applying a tourniquet to his own severed arm.



In the subsequent chaos, it was hard to tell who was doing what, and why: gun trucks began rolling down the streets, dodging a live goat and letting off round after round as insurgents fired RPGs (mounted on invisible fishing line that blended in with the electrical wires above our heads) from upstairs windows; blood-covered casualties were loaded into an ambulance while soldiers went door-to-door with their weapons drawn; and, in the episode's climax, a suicide bomber blew himself up directly beneath us, showering our tour group with ashes.



Twenty minutes later, it was all over. The smoke died down; the actors reassembled, uninjured, to discuss what just occurred; and the sound of blank rounds being fired off behind the buildings at the end of the exercise echoed through the streets.



Incredibly, blank rounds assigned to a particular exercise must be used during that exercise and cannot be saved for another day; if you are curious as to where your tax dollars might be going, picture paid actors shooting entire magazines full of blank rounds out of machine guns behind simulated Middle Eastern buildings in the Mojave desert. Every single blank must be accounted for, leading to the peculiar sight of a village's worth of insurgents stooped, gathering used blank casings into their prop kettles, bread baskets, and plastic bags.



Finally, we descended back down onto the street, dazed, ears ringing, and a little shocked by all the explosions and gunfire. Stepping carefully around pools of fake blood and chunks of plastic viscera, we made our way back to the lobby of the International Hotel for cups of water and a debrief with soldiers involved in planning and implementing the simulation.



Our hosts there were an interesting mix of earnest young boys who looked like they had successful careers in politics ahead of them, standing beside older men, almost stereotypically hard-faced, who could probably scare an AK-47 into misfiring just by staring at it, and a few female soldiers.

Somewhat subdued at this point, our group sat on sofas that had seen better days and passed around an extraordinary collection of injury cards handed out to fallen soldiers and civilians. These detail the specific rules given for role-playing a suite of symptoms and behavior—a kind of design fiction of military injury.



A few of us tried on the MILES (Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System) harnesses that soldiers wear to sense hits from fired blanks, and then an enemy soldier demonstrated an exploding door sill.



While the film crew and Observer Coaches prepared for their "After Action Review," our guides seemed talkative but unwilling to discuss how well or badly the afternoon's session had gone. We asked, instead, about the future of Fort Irwin's villages, as the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan. The vision is to expand the range of urban conditions into what Ferrell termed a "Decisive Action Training Environment," in which U.S. military will continue to encounter "the world's worst actors" [sic]—"guerrillas, criminals, and insurgents"—amidst the furniture of city life.

As he escorted us back down the market street to our bus, one soldier off-handedly remarked that he'd heard the village might be redesigned soon as a Spanish-speaking environment—before hastily and somewhat nervously adding that he didn't know for sure, and, anyway, it probably wasn't true.



The "town" is visible on Google Maps, if you're curious, and it is easy to reach from Barstow. Tours of "The Box" are run twice a month and fill up quickly; learn more at the Fort Irwin website, including safety tips and age restrictions.


Arriving much earlier than expected for our tour of Fort Irwin, detailed in another post, Venue spent a half-hour wandering around the so-called Painted Rocks, where outgoing troops memorialize their time at Fort Irwin by painting unit insignias on an ever-larger swath of desert scrabble.

"We have a tradition at the National Training Center of painting rocks with unit patches and insignias," Command Sgt. Maj. Victor Martinez explains in an article posted at army.mil. They are "symbols of pride and allegiance."



The results are colorful, more self-mockingly macho than threatening, and highly photogenic; skulls, serpents, sharks, and dragons join bombs, arrows, spears, castles, and silhouettes of assault rifles, all of which gradually fade in the desert sun and need to be repainted when the unit responsible circles back to the desert base.

Unexpected cousins of Newspaper Rock, which Venue visited in Utah on a separate trip, the Painted Rocks turn geology into media, not as long-lasting as petroglyphs but still a semi-superstitious message left by humans on a thin layer of the earth's surface.

Kazakhstan Elite, Jessica Rath, high-­fire glazed porcelain, 2012; photograph courtesy Jessica Rath.

Every apple for sale at your local supermarket is a clone. Every single Golden Delicious, for example, contains the exact same genetic material; though the original Golden Delicious tree (discovered in 1905, on a hillside in Clay County, West Virginia) is now gone, its DNA has become all but immortal, grafted onto an orchard of clones growing on five continents and producing more than two hundred billion pounds of fruit each year in the United States alone.

Embedded within this army of clones, however, is the potential for endless apple diversity. Each seed in an apple is genetically unique: like human siblings, seed sisters from the same fruit remix their source DNA into something that has never been seen before—and is likely, at least in the case of the apple, to be bitter, tough, and altogether unpalatable. The sheer variety of wild apples is astonishing: in its original home, near Almaty in Kazakhstan, the apple can be the size of a cherry or a grapefruit; it can be mushy or so hard it will chip teeth; it can be purple- or pink-fleshed with green, orange, or white skin; and it can be sickly sweet, battery-acid sour, or taste like a banana.


Tasting apples at the Plant Genetic Resources Unit; photograph by Jessica Rath from her 2009 visit.

In Geneva, New York, these two extremes—the domesticated apple's endless monoculture and its wild diversity—can be found side-by-side. As part of the national germplasm system, America's apple archivist, Philip Forsline, has assembled and tended a vast Noah's Ark of more than 2,500 apple varieties: two clones of each, in order to preserve the fruit's genetic biodiversity. Meanwhile, on the same Cornell/USDA Agricultural Experiment Station, Susan Brown, one of the country's three commercial apple breeders, develops new clones by cultivating wildly different seed sisters.

In 2009 and 2011, artist Jessica Rath visited both the Apple Collection at the USDA’s Plant Genetic Resources Unit and the Cornell apple-breeding program, creating a body of new work, currently on display at the Pasadena Museum of California Art under the title take me to the apple breeder.

Rath's original goal was to create slip cast porcelain sculptures that embodied the incredible—and now endangered—range of the apple's aesthetic potential; revealing the charms and qualities it has developed through co-evolution with humans as a reflection of our own desires and will. During her visit, however, Rath also became fascinated by the conjoined twin of Forsline's apple archive: Brown's speculative sisters and successful, selected clones, which she photographed as bare-branched trees against a white backdrop.

Intrigued by the idea of artwork that reflects on the complicated threads of selection and preservation that bind humans and apples together, Venue toured the exhibition with Rath. The edited transcript of our conversation, which ranges from the trickiness of Vegas Red glaze to the future of apple breeding, appears below.

• • •


PI 588933.12 (unnamed cluster); photographed on the tree by Jessica Rath during her 2009 visit.

Nicola Twilley: How did you come to visit the Apple Collection at the USDA’s Plant Genetic Resources Unit in upstate New York?

Jessica Rath: I read about it in Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire. The first chapter is about apples, and he visits the orchard in Geneva. I read that section and I knew I needed to make work about it. I don’t do that very often but that passage, where he writes about the variety of the apples and the way they look and taste… I wanted to make something as intriguing as that—I wanted to get you to feel that crazy diversity. I sat on that for years. I wanted to go there, but I had no idea how I was going to make work about it.


Sunset cluster, Jessica Rath, high-­fire glazed porcelain and bronze, 2012; photograph courtesy Jessica Rath.

I just bookmarked it, and then my apricot tree died. I made a peel—an inverted mold, I guess—of this dying tree, and I made a slip cast of its one, last fruit. I’ve changed mediums constantly in my practice—I usually do site-specific installations or I do performance work—but I talked to some sculptor friends to find out how to create a sort of glowing, golden aura for this last apricot, and they all said slip cast porcelain. So I made it, and I looked at it and, and I thought, that’s not it. That’s not good enough. But it did glow. And that’s what made me think I was ready to do something with the apples. I thought, if I can make them glow, then I can make this work. So that’s when I raised some money on Kickstarter to be able to get there.

That was the other piece of the puzzle that fell into place. My daughter was a baby and I hadn’t read anything in months, but I was on a flight and I picked up The New York Times, and there was an article about Kickstarter. I went home, I raised money on Kickstarter, and I got it about a month before the end of apple season; so I raced over to the Plant Genetic Resources Unit for a forty-eight hour visit.


Scouting for apples at the Plant Genetic Resources Unit; photograph by Jessica Rath from her 2009 visit.

I learned a lot while just scouting on the first day, from a man named William Srmack who manages the orchards and works directly with Philip Forsline, who’s the curator of the collection. On the second day, I just collected apples. I brought home several hundred apples. Part of the Kickstarter money bought an extra refrigerator for the studio and I loaded it and kept it pretty cold. I took a lot of photos of the fruit on the tree, and in a light box, too.


PI 483254.22 (unnamed—sunset cluster); photographed on the tree by Jessica Rath during her 2009 visit.

Twilley: Let’s look at the sculptures. If I understand correctly, although each pair or cluster represents a different breed, they’re not casts of specific, particular apples, but rather abstracted, ideal forms—or ur-apples—that embody the breed’s characteristic shape and color.

Rath: Exactly. With slip cast porcelain, you lose thirty percent of the volume when you fire. So, even if you wanted to do a cast of the original apple, you couldn’t get the same scale because it would be shrunk by thirty percent, which not only makes it too small, it also miniaturizes the features. It makes it kind of a caricature. It isn’t just small, it’s cartoonish. So it doesn’t work.

I already knew I had to make an object thirty percent larger in order to get the scale right. But the other thing is that I didn’t want to make something descriptive. I wanted to make something that communicated something about the wild diversity of these apples and the ways that they embody different facets of our desires through the science fiction of breeding—the thing Michael Pollan is writing about.

When you describe things accurately in a botanical drawing sort of way, it dies. When artwork is too illustrative, it can only describe and it can’t go any further than that. You recognize it and then you stop being interested. You’re amazed at the replication, you’re amazed at the representation, but then you actually can’t think about it as anything other than its finite definition.


A Yellow Bellflower photographed on the tree by Jessica Rath during her 2009 visit. The Yellow Bellflower is thought to have originated in Burlington, New Jersey, and is still grown as an heirloom variety today. It is described as a "large, handsome, winter apple" that is equally delicious when used for cidering, baking, or eating out of hand.

For my sculptures, the shapes are very similar to the original. They’re just pushed a little, so that the things about them—the sculptural elements about them, their particular volume or tilt, or how fat and breast-like they are—are composed three-dimensionally in such a way that you notice them a bit more, and they pop a little. They’re not on a tree. They’re not something that’s dangling that you want to pick because you want to eat it; so, instead, I have to make them attractive through a very different model—an art historical model. I’ve got to present them like they’re a still-life, and compose them in that framework, so that you can be intrigued by them again the way you would be if you saw them as a fruit on a tree.


Yellow Bellflower, Jessica Rath, high-fire glazed porcelain, 2012. Rath explained that she focused on the Bellflower's "fantastic curves and lilts. It was very muscular—even beefy—to the point where it felt almost as though it shouldn't be called an apple, but rather some other fruit instead."

Geoff Manaugh: In the exhibition brochure, it says it took two years of experimentation to arrive at these glazes. Can you talk a bit more about that chemical process?

Rath: In ceramics, there are low-fire glazes, which are very descriptive. They stay the same color. Then the high-fire glazes have more of a glow to them. They also just have a lot of materials in them, and are a lot more unpredictable. You’ve probably seen it at pottery stalls at the fair: when you look at all the mugs or plates or whatever that have all been dunked in one kind of cerulean blue, they will all have turned out slightly different. Some of them will be light blue or whiter or purplish, depending on where they were in the kiln and how thick the glaze was on it and how it dripped.

I originally did that apricot, that last fruit, in a low-fire glaze. But for the apples, I steered away from being that descriptive with the glazes because they died for me, except for ones in which I would layer quite a few low-fire glazes. There’s this fuzzy speckling you can get in low-fire, which I wanted.

Normally, you would make little rectangular tiles of clay and you’d fire it and you’d have fifty little things to test the glaze on, till you got roughly what you want. But these apples are round and irregular rather than flat, and the glaze moves on them in very particular ways depending on the size and the angles of their curves, so I couldn’t test on strips. I had to test on the object.


Deacon Jones, Jessica Rath, high-fire glazed porcelain, 2012. The Deacon Jones is the largest apple in Rath's inventory, at a magnificent and somewhat incredible seven inches tall

This one [shown above], the Deacon Jones, probably took one hundred tests. This was the hardest one, even though it’s the straightest glaze. All of the others are tweaked a little, but the glaze on this is pretty straight. It’s called Vegas Red and it does get this red but usually only in parts or pieces, say, at the bottom of the bowl. It doesn’t stay a solid red. And it also drips. So to get it to actually sit there and get this red all over is one out of one hundred, if you’re lucky.

It’s also down to a very, very close relationship with the ceramic technician that took about two years to build, so that after two years of watching me fail over and over again, he put it in a sweet spot in the kiln. He’s Japanese, and he’s pretty old-school, and I think he thought I had finally worked hard enough that I deserved a sweet spot. There’s only one or two of them in the kiln. All of a sudden I got three perfectly red apples in a month. I knew I was improving over time, but it was that relationship, too.


PI 588933.12 (Unnamed cluster), Jessica Rath, high-fire glazed porcelain and bronze, 2012.

This is an unnamed apple [shown above], which is based on trees in the orchard that were grafted from wild apples in Kazakhstan, from the original home of the apple. It’s low-fire over high-fire. I was interested in this sort of speckling blush that they had, but then the blush took over. My approach was to get to a point with the experimentation where I found something that grabbed me and then let it go with that and work with that.

Twilley: That sounds a little like the apple breeding process.

Rath: Yes—I found a quality I liked and then I bred and bred to refine it, essentially. This is a Dulcina, which is another one with a blush that I arrived at while I was trying to get the rest of it into a more green or yellowish stage. I loved the metaphor of the night sky that’s held in it, so I just went for that.


Dulcina, Jessica Rath, high-fire glazed porcelain, 2012.

There’s supposed to be an edition of two of each of these apples, and I’m unable to replicate this one. It’s the last one. I’m still working on it. After you leave, I’ll go up to the kiln again. The idea of producing an edition of two is an odd one in sculpture, but it made sense for the apples: they’re always planted in pairs in the orchard, as a Noah’s Ark idea—in case something happens to one.


Whiteness, Jessica Rath, high-fire glazed porcelain, 2012.

These final ones [shown above] are very, very pale yellow on the tree and when the sun hits them they turn white. You know that they’re yellow, but when you’re in this orchard, things look different. I’ve described it to people as being like when you go fishing, and when you catch a fish, it has a certain glimmer to the skin while it’s alive. As soon as you kill it, as soon as it’s dead, the whole sheen shifts into a kind of grey. The depth of the color is not the same. It’s immediate.


PI 594107.j5 (unnnamed—whiteness), photographed on the tree by Jessica Rath during her 2009 visit.

I swear that these apples have the same thing. There’s something about them when they’re on the tree—they have this luminosity. As soon as you pick them, the depth of the color isn’t there, and the whiteness is just a pale yellow. You can’t capture it in a photograph, either. That’s why I chose ceramics. I’ve no business doing any ceramics. I’ve never done it before. I’m a sculptor, but sculptors and ceramicists are usually in separate departments. But when I saw what the glazes could do, I thought that I could catch that life again.

Porcelain vitrifies—it turns to glass with the glaze—which means that the body of the sculpture and the color that’s applied, this glaze, become one body. That’s a technical thing, but it’s also real and aesthetic. In sculpture, that doesn’t happen. You can use car body paint to make something glow and shift in the light, but it’s always applied, and in ceramics the color and the body become one. I had a whole series of fifteen years of work where I never used color because I always thought, what’s the point? It’s not part of the body of the work; it’s just applied.

Twilley: Did you take the tree photographs in the show at the same time, or is that a separate project?

Rath: While I was at the Plant Genetics Resource Unit, I got a call from this woman, Susan Brown. I don’t even know how she got hold of me, but thank god she did. She said, “You need to come over here, because I’ve got these trees and you need to see them.” It turns out she’s one of only three commercial apple breeders in the United States, and her job is to cross apple varieties to improve them and create the next Jonagold.


Dr. Susan K. Brown and Jessica Rath during the tree photo shoot, March 2011; photography courtesy Jessica Rath.

And I said, “I’m really busy. I’ve got 48 hours. I’m really into these apples.” And she just said, “Get the rest of your apples and come over here. We’ve got three hours before the sun sets.”

I don’t know why I said yes. I was just very lucky. She picked me up in her truck and she showed me a row of cloned trees. It was October, so all of the leaves were still on the trees, and she hadn’t pruned them, because she wants to see what the architecture will do if it’s not touched. It was just this big row of green, and I couldn’t really see anything.


Sisters small and different, Jessica Rath, archival pigment print on exhibition fiber, 2012.

So then she took me to another row of trees that were just saplings. They had some leaves, but not many, because they were so young. Every single one of them had a different architecture—some of them were weeping, some were standing upright, some of them had branches like corkscrew or at perfect right angles. It was like a carnival. They were just different bodies, different leaves, and different sheens to the leaf. She said, “This is what happens when you cross.” Then I got it.

She took me back to her office and showed me a big binder—she had been photographing her trees for years. She understood her trees as artwork, and she wanted somebody else to have a conversation with about that.


Sisters normal, Jessica Rath, archival pigment print on exhibition fiber, 2012.


Sisters weeping, Jessica Rath, archival pigment print on exhibition fiber, 2012.

She had tried to stretch these sheets behind trees in the winter, and I thought—that’s it! I need to do that, but I need to do it really, really well. So I applied for a grant to go back and photograph Susan’s trees in winter.

I came back about a year and a half later. Susan and I spent a day scouting, then we shot for three days. I was trying to not only show the architecture and the diversity, but also what I wanted in terms of understanding her work, and the difference between the sisters and the clones. The sisters had this extreme variety, but when I went back, I fell in love with the clones. They were all covered in leaves before; I couldn’t really see them. But when I went back in winter, they seemed to not embody the diversity but rather, instead, embody this kind of limiting figure, this figure that had been worked on, that had been “improved” by humans, and that was beautiful but also really haunting.


Clone with central leader, Jessica Rath, archival pigment print on exhibition fiber, 2012.

Some of them are bred for their architecture, but lots of them are bred for other qualities—resistance to browning or disease, high yield, or taste—and are kept alive despite their architecture. Susan told me that they’re on the cusp of moving to quite a different way of breeding, using genetic markers, so, in the future, she probably won’t have rows and rows of such extreme variety. She’ll have more control.


Clone spreading with scab resistance, Jessica Rath, archival pigment print on exhibition fiber, 2012.

That idea of artificial selection versus natural selection, and the way that certain varieties become weaker, but yet more common, because they’ve entangled humans into maintaining them—that was something I was thinking about before I went to graduate school. I was working with flora in general, but I couldn’t figure out a way to get plants to talk, and so I gave up and moved on. Then, when I read The Botany of Desire, after fifteen years of staying away from the topic, it was as if Pollan had given me a voice for them—an imaginary voice in which they’re drawing us in through aesthetics and through taste in order to get us to reproduce them. Finally, I felt as though I could have a discussion with plants—that they had agency.


Sisters smiling, Jessica Rath, archival pigment print on exhibition fiber, 2012.


Clone with perseverance, Jessica Rath, archival pigment print on exhibition fiber, 2012.

Manaugh: It’s interesting that the sisters are all shown in group portraits, whereas the clones are shot on their own, as individuals. Was that a conscious decision, and, if so, what was the intention behind it?

Rath: It was interesting—I tried to shoot the clones as a group, but they just became a landscape. It just seemed that the way to show the clones was as an adult, as something that you would pull material from that had lived a life already, that was full of its own, carefully constructed shape already, and that had certain defined characteristics. I wanted it to capture the potential of using it for these breeding experiments. Meanwhile, the sisters are all about the variety.


From left to right, Cole Slutsky, Mary Wingfield, Timothy Zwicky, and Dustin McKibben set up the 20 x 30 ft backdrop for the photograph Water Sprout; photograph courtesy Jessica Rath.


Backdrop set up for Clone with central leader; photograph courtesy Jessica Rath.

The set up was tortuous. I was using a twenty-by-thirty-foot muslin backdrop. There were five people holding it down, the wind was gusting—it could have killed all of us. There was a photographer, the photographer’s assistant, and me all shooting. We had computer equipment tethered to everything and the rows of trees are not very far apart, so we were really squeezed in to get enough distance. And it was early March, so it was unbelievably cold.


Clone water sprout, Jessica Rath, archival pigment print on exhibition fiber, 2012.

I love this one [shown above], particularly because the horizon almost appears like it is an actual horizon, not just one created by the backdrop. For a second, you could think is there a cliff on the other side of the tree. And yet, behind the backdrop, the landscape is present in a sort of ghostlike way. For me, that’s part of the idea—that the landscape is constructed only as much as you need it to be in order to make the thing live.


Clone weeping with resistance, Jessica Rath, archival pigment print on exhibition fiber, 2012.

I also love the fact that there are allusions to the wind that’s there through the folds and ripples. I spent a lot of time working on these images in Photoshop, after the fact, cropping out and removing things—stray branches from other trees, and so on—that distracted from the composition. But I deliberately kept some of the ripples, because I liked the evidence of the physical tension in the landscape. It’s also part of pointing to the artifice. The backdrop doesn’t disappear, and so you remain aware that the whole thing is a construction.


Clone with early pubescence, Jessica Rath, archival pigment print on exhibition fiber, 2012.

The title of this one, Clone with early pubescence, [shown above] alludes to the fact that it’s budding too early, so it’s about to get cut down. It’s already dead to Susan, because it has no use. As we walked around, she was telling me about each of the trees—what will happen to them, or what is promising about them, or what she has used them for—and those stories definitely crept into the way I chose to frame and title the shots.

Twilley: Finally, I’m curious about your next project. I’ve heard a rumor that you’re working on something to do with bees—is that true?

Rath: Yes—well, tomatoes or bees. I loved Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland. The idea of shipping tomatoes from Florida to New York in 1880, in a wagon? It’s crazy! [laughs] I’m doing a series of watercolors of tomatoes right now, which are very different than this. They combine scientific text with quotes from literature about redness, and blushes, and scarlet letters—all about how colors have been used to place judgment on things, and the gendered language that goes with that. There are a lot of “wenches” and “whores” in that series as well. Tasteless whores, too, because some of them are grocery-bought tomatoes. I’m playing with language like that with this series, which is a very different kind of playing than in this apple project—much less subtle.

The bee idea involves visiting Dr. Nieh’s laboratory in San Diego. He’s a bee expert and he has figured out all these incredible ways that bees are communicating, to which he’s given wonderful names like superorganism inhibitory signaling and olfactory eavesdropping.

I’m interested in doing an installation of a hive. It would be to human scale, and it would play with the biofeedback of the people in the hive, and how they interact, as well as the atmospheric conditions. The idea is to create a composition based on all those inputs that shifts in real-time, all based on the scientific research of Dr. Nieh into how bees communicate. I’m looking for a composer to work with on that right now.


Drap d'or gueneme, Jessica Rath, high-fire glazed porcelain, 2012.

Jessica Rath's apple sculptures and photographs are on display at the Pasadena Museum of California Art through February 24, 2013. Many thanks to Willy Blackmore for the suggestion!
According to Jack Chambers, proprietor of the Sonoma Valley Worm Farm and a former Delta Air Lines pilot, when he got in the cockpit of a 747, "the other guys would have second homes and boats and be into golf. But I was the worm guy."


Venue visited Chambers on a sunny September afternoon, and, as he showed us around the farm, he explained that his worm obsession began, straightforwardly enough, as a gardening hobby. A friend told him about a local farmer who had earthworms for sale, and so, twenty years ago, in 1992, Chambers paid a visit to Earl Schmidt, a former mink rancher, enthusiastic angler, and bait worm farmer.

Five days and one 5 gallon bucket of Red Wigglers (Eisenia fetida) later, Chambers' home compost pile was a rich, deep black color with a crumbly texture that he'd never been able to achieve before. He started hanging out with Earl, helping out in return for a chance to learn about worms.


As they picked worms side-by-side over the next three months, Earl told Chambers that he was looking forward to retirement and finally having the time to fish. Chambers, "without really knowing what I was getting into," found himself offering to buy the place.

A crash course in all things worm quickly followed, including a carefully scheduled layover in Vigo, Spain, to attend the World Worm Conference, and conversations with vermiculture pioneer and Ohio State University professor, Clive Edwards. Trial and error also played a role, with Chambers reminiscing about the "worm volcano" he accidentally created by experimenting with cornmeal as a feed — 50,000 disgusted worms all crawled over the sides of the bin at once, in a scene worthy of a horror movie. "Now, if I'm trying something new," explained Chambers, "I only add it to quarter of the bin, to leave room for escape."

Chambers credits his pilot's appreciation for standard operating procedures and checklists for many of the technical improvements he's introduced over the past twenty years. For example, in order to pre-compost the manure source and kill any pathogens or weed seeds before feeding it to the worms, Chambers arrived at his own design for a three-bin forced-air system, complete with a rigorously optimized schedule of turning, blowing, and releasing gases. "If I've done anything with worms," he says, "it's that."


That is certainly not all, though. As we moved under the corrugated steel sheds that house the farm's four million worms, Chambers explained that he realized early on that, in fact, "the vermicompost is the big deal, not the worms." In other words, rather than simply feeding worms in order to harvest them for sale to sport fishermen and gardeners, Chambers focused on marketing their castings, particularly to the region's high-end grape-growers.

To do so, he has built four ninety-foot long continuous flow vermicomposting bins, based on an original blueprint by Clive Edwards, but improved over the years to the point that he now has a patent pending on the design.


"This is high-tech for worms," explained Chambers, as he demonstrated his most recent iteration, the VermiComposter CF40. In sixty days, pre-composted manure will make its way from top to bottom of the four-foot deep bins through a continuous conveyor-belt system of worm digestion.

The raised bins are fed from the top twice per week, and harvested from the bottom once weekly using an automatic breaker bar. A wire mesh tumbler then separates the worms from their excretions; the worms go back in the bins and the remaining black gold is sold for a dollar a pound.


Earthworms are easy to overlook, but among those who do observe their work, they seem to inspire extreme devotion, counting among their historical fans both Aristotle and Charles Darwin. Chambers is equally enthusiastic. As we dug our hands into the warm, soft compost and watched the worms we had disturbed wriggle back into the darkness, he expounded on the mysteries of worm reproduction as well as numerous studies that have shown vermicompost's beneficial impact on germination rates, disease suppression, flavor, and even yield (up to a twenty percent increase for radishes, according to Clive Edwards' colleagues at Ohio State).


Vermicompost is typically used as a potting medium — Chambers' advice is to "put one cup in the hole with your seed or transplant" — or it can be brewed at 73 degrees for 24 hours to make a "compost tea" that can be sprayed onto the soil or plant directly. Although it is between four and fourteen times more expensive than regular compost, Chambers argues that, like a high-end skin product, vermicompost's benefits and economy of use make it well worthwhile:

I tell vineyards to think of it like insurance. After all, a vine costs about $3, and some vineyards lose as many as twenty percent of their new plantings. With our vermicompost, they usually lose less than one percent.


Chambers and his wife even planted four hundred vines of their own, losing only two, and they attribute their ongoing victory over powdery mildew to regular applications of compost tea. They make a very good "Worm Farm Red," that we were lucky enough to sample and that even won a gold medal in the amateur category at the 2008 Valley of the Moon Vintage Festival.

Sonoma Valley Worm Farm already makes more than 200,000 lbs of vermicompost a year, but Chambers took early retirement from Delta last year, and has big plans for the business. The day we visited, he had just finalized the agreements for a new facility that will more than double his capacity, as well as incorporate several new improvements to his existing equipment.


As we examined the architectural plans in Google SketchUp, Chambers described his vision for the next generation VermiComposter CF 40, which will include electronic moisture and temperature monitoring and automated feeding.

While he waits for the new facility to be built, he's already experimenting with feeding the worms an extra inch of compost per week, to see whether he can increase their productivity. Meanwhile, in response to interest from California's berry giant, Driscoll's, he's started working with compost tea-kettle manufacturers on a unit that could brew up to 250,000 gallons at a time. In fact, Chambers' only concern as he scales up, he told us, was what he would do when the worms' demand outstripped the manure supply of the organic dairy farm (Straus Family Creamery) that he currently works with.


Given that, last year, the EPA estimated that thirty percent of annual landfill contents could have been recycled through composting, and that California's dairy cows produce 30 million tons of manure annually, much of which is stored in waste lagoons where it risks contaminating groundwater, it seems as though feeding four or five million new worms is not going to be much of a challenge at all. The fact that those worms will not only remove that waste from the environment, but also transform it into something that scientists are calling "pretty amazing stuff," as well as "the next frontier in biocontrol," is even better.

Chambers told us that he is convinced that "worms are going to be the next big thing in agriculture." If we're smart, it will be.
 
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