FeedIndex
Filter: sunny  view all
The largest collection of wild yeasts in the world fits inside a single beige chest freezer, humming quietly at the back of a busy lab in the University of California at Davis's shiny new Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science.



The Phaff Yeast Culture Collection, as it's known, consists of more than 7,000 strains of 750 different species of the single-celled fungi, mixed with glycerine in cryogenically stored vials or freeze-dried into pellets. Roughly 80 percent of them are not held by any other yeast library in the world.



Kyria Boundy-Mills
, the Phaff Collection curator, knows this because last year she surveyed her global yeast-collecting colleagues, then published her findings in the Journal of Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology. Her own yeast empire is one of several such microbial archives around the world, ranging from broad national "type" libraries to niche collections specializing in microbes from reefs, breweries, and even Antarctic explorers' huts.

As Boundy-Mills showed Venue around her office and lab, she explained that the Phaff Collection's main focus is yeasts isolated from environmental habitats: gathered from sewage sludge, vanished cacti forests, cockroaches, hot springs, glaciers, human cerebrospinal fluid, and a mare's uterus.



The oldest yeast in the collection was isolated by the UC Berkeley cellarmaster in 1893. When Venue visited, Boundy-Mills was still busy processing the 150 new species of yeast she brought back from a 2011 National Institutes of Health-funded biodiversity survey expedition in Indonesia.

"Nearly half of them are new to science," she told us, which makes them a lot of work. "That’s lifetime’s worth of work there, just to describe 60 new species."

The expedition, which included entomologists, botanists, and ichythologists, cataloged such an immense richness of biodiversity that, Mills told Venue, their research site has now been proposed as a national park. "If it's passed," she said, "it will be the first national park in Indonesia to be declared based on biodiversity data—and one of the first in the world based specifically on biodiversity."

The unspoken implication here—that there could even someday be a yeast-based national park—raises the fascinating subject of scale when discussing the types of landscapes or habitats we consider worthy of preservation. Could a single, microbiologically rich room or building be biologically important enough to be declared a national park?

In any case, while other colleagues focused on collecting and identifying microbes and plants with therapeutic potential, Boundy-Mills' focus was on possible bioenergy applications. Specifically, this meant looking for new enzymes that can break down plant materials to simpler sugars, as well as new yeast varieties that can eat sugar and turn it into oil. As Boundy-Mills explained:

Most yeasts will stop eating when they’re no longer hungry. But there are a few yeast species that keep eating the sugar—and eating it and eating it—and they convert it to oil and store it. Under the microscope, you see these big, huge oil droplets inside the cells. They can be up to 60 percent oil—they’re like these obese, couch-potato yeasts.

To find enzymes that can break down plant material, Boundy-Mills and her team sampled the gut microbes of wood-feeding beetle larvae, as well as the decaying wood around them. Meanwhile, a lot of the high-oil yeasts that Boundy-Mills brought back were isolated from the surface of leaves, with some coming from the soil.


Dissected Buprestid beetle larvae, photograph by Irnayuli Sitepu (UC Davis; Ministry of Forestry, Indonesia).

Yeast cells, at only a couple of microns in length, are frequently more of a challenge to isolate for collection than plants or fish. In some cases, Boundy-Mills would just take a sterile bag, put it around a leaf, pluck it off, and pour in some sterile saline solution. After it had swished around for a while, she would put that liquid on an agar plate to culture any microbes that had been on the leaf's surface. Meanwhile, she told us with evident glee, a lot of the high-oil yeasts form ballistospores, meaning that they shoot out their spores, firing them several millimeters into the air:

This is kind of cool. For them, we smeared some Vaseline inside the lid of the Petri plate, and we stuck some pieces of leaf in the lid. If the yeast can make these ballistospores, they will shoot those down onto the agar surface and grow there. It’s called the ballistospore capture method.

Now that she has these Indonesian couch-potato yeasts back in the lab (after mountains of import and and export paperwork, and a lengthy process of purification and DNA analysis), Boundy-Mills is not only observing their oil production performance, but also studying the other by-products that could possibly come out of the yeast cell, in order to make it an economically viable biofuel production process.

As well as oils, some of her yeasts produce protein, anti-oxidants, and even flavoring ingredients. Elsewhere in the collection are yeasts that show promise in agricultural pest control or are used in food processing.

One strain, Phaffia rhodozyma, was originally isolated on a tree stump in Japan, and is now used industrially to produce a dietary supplement for farmed salmon and shrimp, to make them pinker.



In addition to her own research and the occasional yeast-hunting expedition, Boundy-Mills spends her time preparing and sending out strains to researchers who request them, and maintaining the collection—no small task, as the yeasts are far from immortal, even in the extreme cold, so each strain has to be re-cultured on agar in Petri dishes every five years.


Kyria Boundy-Mills with Herman Phaff's notebooks. Phaff, who founded the collection, focused on the ecology of yeast, recording copious contextual notes on their functionality in nature, their interaction with decaying plant material, and the insects that live alongside them.


The Yeasts: A Taxonomic Study has expanded from one volume (center) to three (left) over the past decade.

Boundy-Mills also acts as a kind of yeast consultant, screening and identifying yeasts for biotech companies. As we prepared to leave, she showed us her yeast bible: a taxonomic catalog of all known yeasts. To help us understand why she finds the field so exciting, she explained:

In 2001, when Hermann Phaff, who founded this collection, died, the Taxonomic Study was just one volume, with about six or seven hundred species. In 2011, they had to split it into three volumes, to accommodate more than 1,400 species. And there’s another couple of hundred yeast species that have come out since that was published.

Incredibly, while the known universe of yeasts is increasing exponentially, thanks primarily to DNA sequencing technology, it's estimated that less than one percent of the world's yeast species have been discovered.

"It's one of the most under-surveyed fields—microbes in general," Boundy-Mills sighed. "There are no yeasts that are on the endangered species list because we wouldn't even know if they were at risk. We’re spending all this time and effort exploring the extraterrestrial world, which is great. But we need to spend more time and effort exploring the terrestrial world, too. There’s so much on this planet that we just have not discovered yet!"
A landscape painting above Penny Boston's living room entryway depicts astronauts exploring Mars.

Penelope Boston is a speleo-biologist at New Mexico Tech, where she is Director of Cave and Karst Science. She graciously welcomed Venue to her home in Los Lunas, New Mexico, where we arrived with design futurist Stuart Candy in tow, en route to dropping him off at the Very Large Array later that day.

Boston's work involves studying subterranean ecosystems and their extremophile inhabitants here on Earth, in order to better imagine what sorts of environments and lifeforms we might encounter elsewhere in the Universe. She has worked with the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program (NIAC) to develop protocols for both human extraterrestrial cave habitation and for subterranean life-detection missions on Mars, life which she believes is highly likely to exist.

Over the course of the afternoon, Boston told Venue about her own experiences on Mars analog sites; she explained why she believes there is a strong possibility for life below the surface of the Red Planet, perhaps inside the planet's billion year-old networks of lava tubes; she described her astonishing (and terrifying) cave explorations here on Earth; and we touch on some mind-blowing ideas seemingly straight out of science fiction, including extreme forms of extraterrestrial life (such as dormant life on comets, thawed and reawakened with every passage close to the sun) and the extraordinary potential for developing new pharmaceuticals from cave microorganisms. The edited transcript of our conversation is below.

• • •


The Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station (FMARS) on Devon Island, courtesy the Mars Society.

Geoff Manaugh: As a graduate student, you co-founded the Mars Underground and then the Mars Society. You’re a past President of the Association of Mars Explorers, and you’re also now a member of the science team taking part in Mars Arctic 365, a new one-year Mars surface simulation mission set to start in summer 2014 on Devon Island. How does this long-term interest in Mars exploration tie into your Earth-based research in speleobiology and subterranean microbial ecosystems?

Penelope Boston: Even though I do study surface things that have a microbial component, like desert varnish and travertines and so forth, I really think that it’s the subsurface of Mars where the greatest chance of extant life, or even preservation of extinct life, would be found.

Nicola Twilley: Is it part of NASA’s strategy to go subsurface at any point, to explore caves on Mars or the moon?

Boston: Well, yes and no. The “Strategy” and the strategy are two different things.

The Mars Curiosity rover is a very capable chemistry and physics machine and I am, of course, dying to hear the details of the geochemistry it samples. A friend of mine, for instance, with whom I’m also a collaborator, is the principal investigator of the SAM instrument. Friends of mine are also on the CheMin instrument. So I have a vested interest, both professionally and personally, in the Curiosity mission.

On the other hand, you know: here we go again with yet another mission on the surface. It’s fascinating, and we still have a lot to learn there, but I hope I will live long enough to see us do subsurface missions on Mars and even on other bodies in the solar system.

Unfortunately, right now, we are sort of in limbo. The downturn in the global economy and our national economy has essentially kicked NASA in the head. It’s very unclear where we are going, at this point. This is having profound, negative effects on the Agency itself and everyone associated with it, including those of us who are external fundees and sort of circum-NASA.

On the other hand, although we don’t have a clear plan, we do have clear interests, and we have been pursuing preliminary studies. NASA has sponsored a number of studies on deep drilling, for example. One of the most famous was probably about 15 years ago, and it really kicked things off. That was up in Santa Fe, and we were looking at different methodologies for getting into the subsurface.

I have done a lot of work, some of which has been NASA-funded, on the whole issue of lava tubes—that is, caves associated with volcanism on the surface. Now, Glenn Cushing and Tim Titus at the USGS facility in Flagstaff have done quite a bit of serious work on the high-res images coming back from Mars, and they have identified lava tubes much more clearly than we ever did in our earlier work over the past decade.

Surface features created by lava tubes on Mars; image via ESA

Twilley: Are caves as common on Mars as they are on Earth? Is that the expectation?

Boston: I’d say that lava tubes are large, prominent, and liberally distributed everywhere on Mars. I would guess that there are probably more lava tubes on Mars than there are here on Earth—because here they get destroyed. We have such a geologically and hydro-dynamically active planet that the weathering rates here are enormous.

But on Mars we have a lot of factors that push in the other direction. I’d expect to find tubes of exceeding antiquity—I suspect that billions-of-year-old tubes are quite liberally sprinkled over the planet. That’s because the tectonic regime on Mars is quiescent. There is probably low-level tectonism—there are, undoubtedly, Marsquakes and things like that—but it’s not a rock’n’roll plate tectonics like ours, with continents galloping all over the place, and giant oceans opening up across the planet.

That means the forces that break down lava tubes are probably at least an order of magnitude or more—maybe two, maybe three—less likely to destroy lava tubes over geological time. You will have a lot of caves on Mars, and a lot of those caves will be very old.

Plus, remember that you also have .38 G. The intrinsic tensile strength of the lava itself, or whatever the bedrock is, is also going to allow those tubes to be much more resistant to the weaker gravity there.

Surface features of lava tubes on Mars; image via ESA

Manaugh: I’d imagine that, because the gravity is so much lower, the rocks might also behave differently, forming different types of arches, domes, and other formations underground. For instance, large spans and open spaces would be shaped according to different gravitational strains. Would that be a fair expectation?

Boston: Well, it’s harder to speculate on that because we don’t know what the exact composition of the lava is—which is why, someday, we would love to get a Mars sample-return mission, which is no longer on the books right now. [sighs] It’s been pushed off.

In fact, I just finished, for the seventh time in my career, working on a panel on that whole issue. This was the E2E—or End-to-End—group convened by Dave Beatty, who is head of the Mars Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory [PDF].

About a year ago, we finished doing some intensive international work with our European Space Agency partners on Mars sample-return—but now it’s all been pushed off again. The first one of those that I worked on was when I was an undergraduate, almost ready to graduate at Boulder, and that was 1979. It just keeps getting pushed off.

I’d say that we are very frustrated within the planetary and astrobiology communities. We can use all these wonderful instruments that we load onto vehicles like Curiosity and we can send them there. We can do all this fabulous orbital stuff. But, frankly speaking, as a person with at least one foot in Earth science, until you’ve got the stuff in your hands—actual physical samples returned from Mars—there is a lot you can’t do.

Looking down through a "skylight" on Mars; image via NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Image via NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Twilley: Could you talk a bit about your work with exoplanetary research, including what you’re looking for and how you might find it?

Boston: [laughs] The two big questions!

But, yes. We are working on a project at Socorro now to atmospherically characterize exoplanets. It’s called NESSI, the New Mexico Exoplanet Spectroscopic Survey Instrument. Our partner is Mark Swain, over at JPL. They are doing it using things like Kepler, and they have a new mission they’re proposing, called FINESSE. FINESSE will be a dedicated exoplanet atmospheric characterizer.

We are also trying to do that, in conjunction with them, but from a ground-based instrument, in order to make it more publicly accessible to students and even to amateur astronomers.

That reminds me—one of the other people you might be interested in talking to is a young woman named Lisa Messeri, who just recently finished her PhD in Anthropology at MIT. She’s at the University of Pennsylvania now. Her focus is on how scientists like me to think about other planets as other worlds, rather than as mere scientific targets—how we bring an abstract scientific goal into the familiar mental space where we also have recognizable concepts of landscape.

I’ve been obsessed with that my entire life: the concept of space, and the human scaling of these vastly scaled phenomena, is central, I think, to my emotional core, not just the intellectual core.

The Allan Hills Meteorite (ALH84001); courtesy of NASA.

Manaugh: While we’re on the topic of scale, I’m curious about the idea of astrobiological life inhabiting a radically, undetectably nonhuman scale. For example, one of the things you’ve written and lectured about is the incredible slowness it takes for some organisms to form, metabolize, and articulate themselves in the underground environments you study. Could there be forms of astrobiological life that exist on an unbelievably different timescale, whether it’s a billion-year hibernation cycle that we might discover at just the wrong time and mistake, say, for a mineral? Or might we find something on a very different spatial scale—for example, a species that is more like a network, like an aspen tree or a fungus?

Boston: You know, Paul Davies is very interested in this idea—the concept of a shadow biosphere. Of course, I had also thought about this question for many years, long before I read about Davies or before he gave it a name.

The conundrum you face is how you would know—how you would study or even conceptualize—these other biospheres? It’s outside of your normal spatial and temporal comfort zone, in which all of your training and experience has guided you to look, and inside of which all of your instruments are designed to function. If it’s outside all of that, how will you know it when you see it?

Imagine comets. With every perihelion passage, volatile gases escape. You are whipping around the solar system. Your body comes to life for that brief period of time only. Now apply that to icy bodies in very elliptical orbits in other solar systems, hosting life with very long periods of dormancy.

There are actually some wonderful early episodes of The Twilight Zone that tap into that theme, in a very poetic and literary way. [laughs] Of course, it’s also the central idea of some of the earliest science fiction; I suppose Gulliver’s Travels is probably the earliest exploration of that concept.

In the microbial realm—to stick with what we do know, and what we can study—we are already dealing with itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny things that are devilishly difficult to understand. We have a lot of tools now that enable us to approach those, but, very regularly, we’ll see things in electron microscopy that we simply can’t identify and they are very clearly structured. And I don’t think that they are all artifacts of the preparation—things that get put there accidentally during prep.

A lot of the organisms that we actually grow, and with which we work, are clearly nanobacteria. I don’t know how familiar you are with that concept, but it has been extremely controversial. There are many artifacts out there that can mislead us, but we do regularly see organisms that are very small. So how small can they be—what’s the limit?

A few of the early attempts at figuring this out were just childish. That’s a mean thing to say, because a lot of my former mentors have written some of those papers, but they would say things like: “Well, we need to conduct X, Y, and Z metabolic pathways, so, of course, we need all this genetic machinery.” I mean, come on, you know that early cells weren’t like that! The early cells—who knows what they were or what they required?

To take the famous case of the ALH84001 meteorite: are all those little doobobs that you can see in the images actually critters? I don’t know. I think we’ll never know, at least until we go to Mars and bring back stuff.

I have relatively big microbes in my lab that regularly feature little knobs and bobs and little furry things, that I am actually convinced are probably either viruses or prions or something similar. I can’t get a virologist to tell me yes. They are used to looking at viruses that they can isolate in some fashion. I don’t know how to get these little knobby bobs off my guys for them to look at.

The Allan Hills Meteorite (ALH84001); courtesy of NASA.

Twilley: In your paper on the human utilization of subsurface extraterrestrial environments [PDF], you discuss the idea of a “Field Guide to Unknown Organisms,” and how to plan to find life when you don’t necessarily know what it looks like. What might go into such a guide?

Boston: The analogy I often use with graduate students when I teach astrobiology is that, in some ways, it’s as if we are scientists on a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri and we are trying to write a field guide to the birds of Earth. Where do you start? Well, you start with whatever template you have. Then you have to deeply analyze every feature of that template and ask whether each feature is really necessary and which are just a happenstance of what can occur.

I think there are fundamental principles. You can’t beat thermodynamics. The need for input and outgoing energy is critical. You have to be delicately poised, so that the chemistry is active enough to produce something that would be a life-like process, but not so active that it outstrips any ability to have cohesion, to actually keep the life process together. Water is great as a solvent for that. It’s probably not the only solvent, but it’s a good one. So you can look for water—but do you really need to look for water?

I think you have to pick apart the fundamental assumptions. I suspect that predation is a relatively universal process. I suspect that parasitism is a universal process. I think that, with the mathematical work being done on complex, evolving systems, you see all these emerging properties.

Now, with all of that said, the details—the sizes, the scale, the pace, getting back to what we were just talking about—I think there is huge variability in there.

Caves on Mars; images courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/USGS.

Twilley: How do you train people to look for unrecognizable life?

Boston: I think everybody—all biologists—should take astrobiology. It would smack you on the side of the head and say, “You have to rethink some of these fundamental assumptions! You can’t just coast on them.”

The organisms that we study in the subsurface are so different from the microbes that we have on the surface. They don’t have any predators—so, ecologically, they don’t have to outgrow any predators—and they live in an environment where energy is exceedingly scarce. In that context, why would you bother having a metabolic rate that is as high as some of your compatriots on the surface? You can afford to just hang out for a really long time.

We have recently isolated a lot of strains from these fluid inclusions in the Naica caves—the one with those gigantic crystals. It’s pretty clear that these guys have been trapped in these bubbles between 10,000 and 15,000 years. We’ve got fluid inclusions in even older materials—in materials that are a few million years old, even, in a case we just got some dates for, as much as 40 million years.


Naica Caves, image from the official website. The caves are so hot that explorers have to wear special ice-jackets to survive.

One of the caveats is, of course, that when you go down some distance, the overlying lithostatic pressure of all of that rock makes space impossible. Microbes can’t live in zero space. Further, they have to have at least inter-grain spaces or microporosity—there has to be some kind of interconnectivity. If you have organisms completely trapped in tiny pockets, and they never interact, then that doesn’t constitute a biosphere. At some point, you also reach temperatures that are incompatible with life, because of the geothermal gradient. Where exactly that spot is, I don’t know, but I’m actually working on a lot of theoretical ideas to do with that.

In fact, I’m starting a book for MIT Press that will explore some of these ideas. They wanted me to write a book on the cool, weird, difficult, dangerous places I go to and the cool, weird, difficult bugs I find. That’s fine—I’m going to do that. But, really, what I want to do is put what we have been working on for the last thirty years into a theoretical context that doesn’t just apply to Earth but can apply broadly, not only to other planets in our solar system, but to one my other great passions, of course, which is exoplanets—planets outside the solar system.

One of the central questions that I want to explore further in my book, and that I have been writing and talking about a lot, is: what is the long-term geological persistence of organisms and geological materials? I think this is another long-term, evolutionary repository for living organisms—not just fossils—that we have not tapped into before. I think that life gets recycled over significant geological periods of time, even on Earth.

That’s a powerful concept if we then apply it to somewhere like Mars, for example, because Mars does these obliquity swings. It has super-seasonal cycles. It has these little dimple moons that don’t stabilize it, whereas our moon stabilizes the Earth’s obliquity level. That means that Mars is going through these super cold and dry periods of time, followed by periods of time where it’s probably more clement.

Now, clearly, if organisms can persist for tens of thousands of years—let alone hundreds of thousands of years, and possibly even millions of years—then maybe they are reawakenable. Maybe you have this very different biosphere.

Manaugh: Like a biosphere in waiting.

Boston: Yes—a biosphere in waiting, at a much lower level.

Recently, I have started writing a conceptual paper that really tries to explore those ideas. The genome that we see active on the surface of any planet might be of two types. If you have a planet like Earth, which is photosynthetically driven, you’re going to have a planet that is much more biological in terms of the total amount of biomass and the rates at which this can be produced. But that might not be the only way to run a biosphere.

You might also have a much more low-key biosphere that could actually be driven by geochemical and thermal energy from the inside of the planet. This was the model that we—myself, Chris McKay, and Michael Ivanoff, one of our colleagues from what was the Soviet Union at the time—published more than twenty years ago for Mars. We suggested that there would be chemically reduced gases coming from the interior of the planet.

That 1992 paper was what got us started on caves. I had never been in a wild cave in my life before. We were looking for a way to get into that subsurface space. The Department of Energy was supporting a few investigators, but they weren’t about to share their resources. Drilling is expensive. But caves are just there; you can go inside them.

So that’s really what got us into caving. It was at that point where I discovered caves are so variable and fascinating, and I really refocused my career on that for the last 20 years.


Lechuguilla Cave, photograph by Dave Bunnell.


Penelope Boston caving, image courtesy of V. Hildreth-Werker, from "Extraterrestrial Caves: Science, Habitat, Resources," NIAC Phase I Study Final Report, 2001.

The first time I did any serious caving was actually in Lechuguilla Cave. It was completely nuts to make that one’s first wild cave. We trained for about three hours, then we launched into a five-day expedition into Lechuguilla that nearly killed us! Chris McKay came out with a terrible infection. I had a blob of gypsum in my eye and an infection that swelled it shut. I twisted my ankle. I popped a rib. Larry Lemke had a massive migraine. We were not prepared for this. The people taking us in should have known better. But one of them is a USGS guide and a super caving jock, so it didn’t even occur to him—it didn’t occur to him that we were learning instantaneously to operate in a completely alien landscape with totally inadequate skills.

All I knew was that I was beaten to a pulp. I could almost not get across these chasms. I’m a short person. Everybody else was six feet tall. I felt like I was just hanging on long enough so I could get out and live. I've been in jams before, including in Antarctica, but that’s all I thought of the whole five days: I just have to live through this.

But, when I got out, I realized that what the other part of my brain had retained was everything I had seen. The bruises faded. My eye stopped being infected. In fact, I got the infection from looking up at the ceiling and having some of those gooey blobs drip down into my eye—but, I was like, “Oh my God. This is biological. I just know it is.” So it was a clue. And, when, I got out, I knew I had to learn how to do this. I wanted to get back in there.

ESA astronauts on a "cave spacewalk" during a 2011 training mission in the caves of Sardinia; image courtesy of the ESA.

Manaugh: You have spoken about the possibility of entire new types of caves that are not possible on Earth but might be present elsewhere. What are some of these other cave types you think might exist, and what sort of conditions would have formed them? You’ve used some great phrases to describe those processes—things like “volatile labyrinths” and “ice volcanism” that create speleo-landscapes that aren’t possible on Earth.

Boston: Well, in terms of ice, I’ll bet there are all sorts of Lake Vostok-like things out there on other moons and planets.

The thing with Lake Vostok is that it’s not a "lake." It’s a cave: a cave in ice. The ice, in this case, acts as bedrock, so it’s not a lake at all. It’s a closed system.

Manaugh: It’s more like a blister: an enclosed space full of fluid.

Boston: Exactly. In terms of speculating on the kinds of caves that might exist elsewhere in the universe, we are actually working on a special issue for the Journal of Astrobiology right now, based on the extraterrestrial planetary caves meeting that we did last October. We brought people from all over the place. This is a collaboration between my Institute—the National Cave and Karst Research Institute in Carlsbad, where we have our headquarters—and the Lunar and Planetary Institute.

The meeting was an attempt to explore these ideas. Karl Mitchell from JPL, who I had not met previously, works on Titan; he’s on the Cassini Huygens mission. He thinks he is seeing karst-like features on Titan. Just imagine that! Hydrocarbon fluids producing karst-like features in water-ice bedrock—what could be more exotic than that?

That also shows that the planetary physics dominates in creating these environments. I used to think that the chemistry dominated. I don’t think so anymore. I think that the physics dominates. You have to step away from the chemistry at first and ask: what are the fundamental physics that govern the system? Then you can ask: what are the fundamental chemical potentials that govern the system that could produce life? It’s the same exercise with imagining what kind of caves you can get—and I have a lurid imagination.


From "Human Utilization of Subsurface Extraterrestrial Environments," P. J. Boston, R. D. Frederick, S. M. Welch, J. Werker, T. R. Meyer, B. Sprungman, V. Hildreth-Werker, S. L. Thompson, and D. L. Murphy, Gravitational and Space Biology Bulletin 16(2), June 2003.

One of the fun things I do in my astrobiology class every couple of years is the capstone project. The students break down into groups of four or five, hopefully well-mixed in terms of biologists, engineers, chemists, geologists, physicists, and other backgrounds.

Then they have to design their own solar system, including the fundamental, broad-scale properties of its star. They have to invent a bunch of planets to go around it. And they have to inhabit at least one of those planets with some form of life. Then they have to design a mission—either telescopic or landed—that could study it. They work on this all semester, and they are so creative. It’s wonderful. There is so much value in imagining the biospheres of other planetary bodies.

You just have to think: “What are the governing equations that you have on this planet or in this system?” You look at the gravitational value of a particular body, its temperature regime, and the dominant geochemistry. Does it have an atmosphere? Is it tectonic? One of the very first papers I did—it appeared in one of these obscure NASA special publications, of which they print about 100 and nobody can ever find a copy—was called “Bubbles in the Rocks.” It was entirely devoted to speculation about the properties of natural and artificial caves as life-support structures. A few years later, I published a little encyclopedia article, expanding on it, and I’m now working on another expansion, actually.

I think that, either internally, externally, or both, planetary bodies that form cracks are great places to start. If you then have some sort of fluid—even episodically—within that system, then you have a whole new set of cave-forming processes. Then, if you have a material that can exist not only in a solid phase, but also as a liquid or, in some cases, even in a vapor phase on the same planetary body, then you have two more sets of potential cave-forming processes. You just pick it apart from those fundamentals, and keep building things up as you think about these other cave-forming systems and landscapes.

ESA astronauts practice "cavewalking"; image courtesy ESA-V. Corbu.

Manaugh: One of my favorite quotations is from a William S. Burroughs novel, where he describes what he calls “a vast mineral consciousness at absolute zero, thinking in slow formations of crystal.”

Boston: Oh, wow.

Manaugh: I mention that because I’m curious about how the search for “extraterrestrial life” always tends to be terrestrial, in the sense that it’s geological and it involves solid planetary formations. But what about the search for life on a gaseous planet—would life be utterly different there, chemically speaking, or would it simply be sort of dispersed, or even aerosolized? I suppose I’m also curious if there could be a “cave” on a gaseous planet and, if so, would it really just be a weather system? Is a “cave” on a gaseous planet actually just a storm? Or, to put it more abstractly, can there be caves without geology?

Boston: Hmm. Yes, I think there could be. If it was enclosed or self-perpetuating.

Manaugh: Like a self-perpetuating thermal condition in the sky. It would be a sort of atmospheric “cave.”

Twilley: It would be a bubble.

ESA astronauts explore caves in Sardinia; image courtesy ESA–R. Bresnik.

Boston: In terms of life that could exist in a permanent, fluid medium that was gaseous—rather than a compressed fluid, like water—Carl Sagan and Edwin Salpeter made an attempt at that, back in 1975. In fact, I use their "Jovian Gasbags" paper as a foundational text in my astrobiology classes.

But an atmospheric system like Jupiter is dominated—just like an ocean is—by currents. It’s driven by thermal convection cells, which are the weather system, but it’s at a density that gives it more in common with our oceans than with our sky. And we are already familiar with the fact that our oceans, even though they are a big blob of water, are spatially organized into currents, and they are controlled by density, temperature, and salinity. The ocean has a massively complex three-dimensional structure; so, too, does the Jovian atmosphere. So a gas giant is really more like a gaseous ocean I think.

Now, the interior machinations that go on in inside a planet like Jupiter are driving these gas motions. There is a direct analogy here to the fact that, on our rocky terrestrial planet, which we think of as a solid Earth, the truth is that the mantle is plastic—in fact, the Earth’s lower crust is a very different substance from what we experience up here on this crusty, crunchy top, this thing that we consider solid geology. Whether we’re talking about a gas giant like Jupiter or the mantle of a rocky planet like Earth, we are really just dealing with different regimes of density—and, here again, it’s driven by the physics.

ESA astronauts set up an experimental wind-speed monitoring station in the caves of Sardinia; image courtesy ESA/V. Crobu.

A couple of years ago, I sat in on a tectonics class that one of my colleagues at New Mexico Tech was giving, which was a lot of fun for me. Everybody else was thinking about Earth, and I was thinking about everything but Earth. For my little presentation in class, what I tried to do was think about analogies to things on icy bodies—to look at Europa, Titan, Enceledus, Ganymede, and so forth, and to see how they are being driven by the same tectonic processes, and even producing the same kind of brittle-to-ductile mantle transition, but in ice rather than rock.

I think that, as we go further and further in the direction of having to explain what we think is going on in exoplanets, it’s going to push some of the geophysics in that direction, as well. There is amazingly little out there. I was stunned, because I know a lot of planetary scientists who are thinking about this kind of stuff, but there is a big gulf between Earth geophysics and applying those lessons to exoplanets.

ESA astronauts prepare for their 2013 training mission in the caves of Sardinia; image courtesy ESA-V. Crobu.

Manaugh: We need classes in speculative geophysics.

Boston: Yeah—come on, geophysicists! [laughs] Why shouldn’t they get in the game? We’ve been doing it in astrobiology for a long time.

In fact, when I’ve asked my colleagues certain questions like, “Would we even get orogeny on a three Earth-mass planet?” They are like, “Um… We don’t know.” But you know what? I bet we have the equations to figure that out.

It starts with something as simple as that: in different or more extreme gravitational regimes, could you have mountains? Could you have caves? How could you calculate that? I don’t know the answer to that—but you have to ask it.

ESA astronauts take microbiological samples during a 2011 training mission in the caves of Sardinia; image courtesy of the ESA.

Twilley: You’re a member of NASA’s Planetary Protection Subcommittee. Could you talk a little about what that means? I’m curious whether the same sorts of planetary protection protocols we might use on other planets like Mars should also be applied to the Earth’s subsurface. How do we protect these deeper ecosystems? And how do we protect deeper ecosystems on Mars, assuming there are any?

Boston: That’s a great question. We are working extremely hard to do that, actually.

Planetary protection is the idea that we must protect Earth from off-world contaminants. And, of course, vice versa: we don’t want to contaminate other planets, both for scientific reasons and, at least in my case, for ethical reasons, with biological material from Earth.

In other words, I think we owe it to our fellow bodies in the solar system to give them a chance to prove their biogenicity or not, before humans start casually shedding our skin cells or transporting microbes there.

That’s planetary protection, and it works both ways.

One thing I have used as a sales pitch in some of my proposals is the idea that we are attempting to become more and more noninvasive in our cave exploration, which is very hard to do. For example, we have pushed all of our methods in the direction of using miniscule quantities of sample. Most Earth scientists can just go out and collect huge chunks of rock. Most biologists do that, too. You grow E. coli in the lab and you harvest tons of it. But I have to take just a couple grams of material—on a lucky day—sometimes even just milligrams of material, with very sparse bio density in there. I have to work with that.

What this means is that the work we are doing also lends itself really well to developing methods that would be useful on extraterrestrial missions.

In fact, we are pushing in the direction of not sampling at all, if we can. We are trying to see what we can learn about something before we even poke it. So, in our terrestrial caving work, we are actually living the planetary protection protocol.

We are also working in tremendously sensitive wilderness areas and we are often privileged enough to be the only people to get in there. We want to minimize the potential contamination.

That said, of course, we are contaminant sources. We risk changing the environment we’re trying to study. We struggle with this. I struggle with it physically and methodologically. I struggle with it ethically. You don’t want to screw up your science and inadvertently test your own skin bugs.

I’d say this is one of those cases where it’s not unacceptable to have a nonzero risk—to use a double negative again. There are few things in life that I would say that about. Even in our ridiculous risk-averse culture, we understand that for most things, there is a nonzero risk of basically anything. There is a nonzero risk that we’ll be hit by a meteorite now, before we are even done with this interview. But it’s pretty unlikely.

In this case, I think it’s completely unacceptable to run much of a risk at all.

That said, the truth is that pathogens co-evolve with their hosts. Pathogenesis is a very delicately poised ecological relationship, much more so than predation. If you are made out of the same biochemistry I’m made of, the chances are good that I can probably eat you, assuming that I have the capability of doing that. But the chances that I, as a pathogen, could infect you are miniscule. So there are different degrees of danger.

There is also the alien effect, which is well known in microbiology. That is that there is a certain dose of microbes that you typically need to get in order for them to take hold, because they are coming into an area where there’s not much ecological space. They either have to be highly pre-adapted for whatever the environment is that they land in, or they have to be sufficiently numerous so that, when they do get introduced, they can actually get a toehold.

We don’t really understand some of the fine points of how that occurs. Maybe it’s quorum sensing. Maybe it’s because organisms don’t really exist as single strains at the microbial level and they really have to be in consortia—in communities—to take care of all of the functions of the whole community.

We have a very skewed view of microbiology, because our knowledge comes from a medical and pathogenesis history, where we focus on single strains. But nobody lives like that. There are no organisms that do that. The complexity of the communal nature of microorganisms may be responsible for the alien effect.

So, given all of that, do I think that we are likely to be able to contaminate Mars? Honestly, no. On the surface, no. Do I act as if we can? Yes—absolutely, because the stakes are too high.

Now, do I think we could contaminate the subsurface? Yes. You are out of the high ultraviolet light and out of the ionizing radiation zone. You would be in an environment much more likely to have liquid water, and much more likely to be in a thermal regime that was compatible with Earth life.

So you also have to ask what part of Mars you are worried about contaminating.

ESA teams perform bacterial sampling and examine a freshwater supply; top photo courtesy ESA–V. Crobu; bottom courtesy ESA/T. Peake.

Manaugh: There’s been some interesting research into the possibility of developing new pharmaceuticals from these subterranean biospheres—or even developing new industrial materials, like new adhesives. I’d love to know more about your research into speleo-pharmacology or speleo-antibiotics—drugs developed from underground microbes.

Boston: It’s just waiting to be exploited. The reasons that it has not yet been done have nothing to do with science and nothing to do with the tremendous potential of these ecosystems, and everything to do with the bizarre and not very healthy economics of the global drug industry. In fact, I just heard that someone I know is leaving the pharmaceutical industry, because he can’t stand it anymore, and he’s actually going in the direction of astrobiology.

Really, there is a de-emphasis on drug discovery today and more of an emphasis on drug packaging. It is entirely profit-driven motive, which is distasteful, I think, and extremely sad. I see a real niche here for someone who doesn’t want to become just a cog in a giant pharmaceutical company, someone who wants to do a small start-up and actually do drug discovery in an environment that is astonishingly promising.

It’s not my bag; I don’t want to develop drugs. But I see our organisms producing antibiotics all the time. When we grow them in culture, I can see where some of them are oozing stuff—pink stuff and yellow stuff and clear stuff. And you can see it in nature. If you go to a lava tube cave, here in New Mexico, you see they are doing it all the time.

A lot of these chemistry tests screen for mutagenic activity, chemogenic activity, and all of the other things that are indications of cancer-fighting drugs and so on, and we have orders of magnitude more hits from cave stuff than we do from soils. So where is everybody looking? In soils. Dudes! I’ve got whole ecosystems in one pool that are different from an ecosystem in another pool that are less than a hundred feet apart in Lechuguilla Cave! The variability—the non-homogeneity of the subsurface—vastly exceeds the surface, because it’s not well mixed.

ESA astronauts prepare their experiments and gear for a 2013 CAVES ("Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising human behaviour and performance Skills") mission in Sardinia; image courtesy ESA–V. Crobu

Twilley: In your TED talk, you actually say that the biodiversity in caves on Earth may well exceed the entire terrestrial biosphere.

Boston: Oh, yes—certainly the subsurface. There is a heck of a lot of real estate down there, when you add all those rock-fracture surface areas up. And each one of these little pockets is going off on its own evolutionary track. So the total diversity scales with that. It’s astonishing to me that speleo-bioprospecting hasn’t taken off already. I keep writing about it, because I can’t believe that there aren’t twenty-somethings out there who don’t want to go work for big pharma, who are fascinated by this potential for human use.

There is a young faculty member at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, whose graduate student is one of our friends and cavers, and they are starting to look at some of these. I’m like, “Go for it! I can supply you with endless cultures.”

Twilley: In your “Human Mission to Inner Space” experiment, you trialed several possible Martian cave habitat technologies in a one-week mission to a closed cave with a poisonous atmosphere in Arizona. As part of that, you looked into Martian agriculture, and grew what you called “flat crops.” What were they?

Boston: We grew great duckweed and waterfern. We made duckweed cookies. Gus made a rice and duckweed dish. It was quite tasty. [laughs] We actually fed two mice on it exclusively for a trial period, but although duckweed has more protein than soybeans, there weren’t enough carbohydrates to sustain them calorically.

But the duckweed idea was really just to prove a point. A great deal of NASA’s agricultural research has been devoted to trying to grow things for astronauts to make them happier on the long, outbound trips—which is very important. It is a very alien environment and I think people underestimate that. People who have not been in really difficult field circumstances have no apparent understanding of the profound impact of habitat on the human psyche and our ability to perform. Those of us who have lived in mock Mars habitats, or who have gone into places like caves, or even just people who have traveled a lot, outside of their comfort zone, know that. Your circumstances affect you.

One of the things we designed, for example, was a way to illuminate an interior subsurface space by projecting a light through fluid systems—because you’d do two things. You’d get photosynthetic activity of these crops, but you’d also get a significant amount of very soothing light into the interior space.

We had such a fabulous time doing that project. We just ran with the idea of: what you can do to make the space that a planet has provided for you into actual, livable space.

From Boston's presentation report on the Human Utilization of Subsurface Extraterrestrial Environments, NIAC Phase II study (PDF).

Twilley: Earlier on our Venue travels, we actually drove through Hanksville, Utah, where many of the Mars analog environment studies are done.

Boston: I’ve actually done two crews there. It’s incredibly effective, considering how low-fidelity it is.

Twilley: What makes it so effective?

Boston: Simple things are the most critical. The fact that you have to don a spacesuit and the incredible cumbersomeness of that—how it restricts your physical space in everything from how you turn your head to how your visual field is limited. Turning your head doesn’t work anymore, because you just look inside your helmet; your whole body has to turn, and it can feel very claustrophobic.

Then there are the gloves, where you’ve got your astronaut gloves on and you’re trying to manipulate the external environment without your normal dexterity. And there’s the cumbersomeness and, really, the psychological burden of having to simulate going through an airlock cycle. It’s tremendously effective. Being constrained with the same group of people, it is surprisingly easy to buy into the simulation. It’s not as if you don’t know you’re not on Mars, but it doesn’t take much to make a convincing simulation if you get those details right.

The Mars Desert Research Station, Hanksville, Utah; image courtesy of bandgirl807/Wikipedia.

I guess that’s what was really surprising to me, the first time I did it: how little it took to be transform your human experience and to really cause you to rethink what you have to do. Because everything is a gigantic pain in the butt. Everything you know is wrong. Everything you think in advance that you can cope with fails in the field. It is a humbling experience, and an antidote to hubris. I would like to take every engineer I know that works on space stuff—

Twilley: —and put them in Hanksville! [laughter]

Boston: Yes—seriously! I have sort of done that, by taking these loafer-wearing engineers—most of whom are not outdoorsy people in any way, who haunt the halls of MIT and have absorbed the universe as a built environment—out to something as simple as the lava tubes. I could not believe how hard it was for them. Lava tubes are not exactly rigorous caving. Most of these are walk-in, with only a little bit of scrambling, but you would have thought we’d just landed on Mars. It was amazing for some of them, how totally urban they are and how little experience they have of coping with a natural space. I was amazed.

I actually took a journalist out to a lava tube one time. I think this lady had never left her house before! There’s a little bit of a rigorous walk over the rocks—but it was as if she had never walked on anything that was not flat before.

From Venue's own visit to a lava tube outside Flagstaff, AZ.

It’s just amazing what one’s human experience does. This is why I think engineers should be forced to go out into nature and see if the systems they are designing can actually work. It’s one of the best ways for them to challenge their assumptions, and even to change the types of questions they might be asking in the first place.


In what would turn out to be, in retrospect, the northernmost stop on the 16-month Venue itinerary, we drove into the iron ranges and boreal forests of Minnesota to see a 6,000-ton machine buried inside the earth.

The Soudan Underground Mine State Park offers two ticketed tours, each very worthwhile, and we took both of them.



One tour offers a look back at the mine's history, descending 2,300 feet below the surface of the earth to explore the old drifts and stopes. Soudan was Minnesota's oldest and richest mine until U.S. Steel ceased operations in 1963, and the iron extracted here fueled East Coast steel mills, where it was transformed into the nation's railways, machinery, bridges, and weaponry.

The tour begins with a disconcertingly cold, and extraordinarily loud elevator ride shuddering deep into the artificial caverns of this now-derelict site. The ride down is itself spectacular, an all-encompassing roar of noise and darkness, occasionally broken by the film-strip like regular appearance of voids that, we learned, were the entrances of other mine levels we were dropping past. Wondering what was on that level—or that level, or the next level, or this other one—as they flickered by in the gloom allowed the full, nearly overwhelming size of the mine to sink in.

While the historic tour lacks the hokey, interpretive dimension of many other such mine tours, the genuinely hive-like nature of the Soudan Mine—a volumetrically incomprehensible human-carved labyrinth—is only loosely communicated. Only half-joking, we speculated that this might very well be to keep unprepared visitors from experiencing a kind of existential panic upon descent into the 50-plus miles of subterranean chambers.



What sets the Soudan Mine apart, though, is the gigantic high energy physics experiment buried in its bowels. On the accompanying "science tour," visitors have the chance to marvel at the three-story tall, 6,000-ton MINOS "far detector," a kind of catcher's mitt for subatomic particles called neutrinos.

More specifically, these are artificially generated neutrinos fired north from Fermilab outside Chicago. The neutrinos are produced by a complex series of subterranean graphite targets and vacuum pipes just outside Chicago, which transform a spray of protons from Fermilab's "Main Injector" particle accelerator into a focused beam of tiny neutrinos, traveling the 455 miles through the planet between their source and the detector in just 0.0025 seconds.



The neutrinos can make that journey without getting deflected or absorbed by layers of dense bedrock in between because they almost never interact with matter, zipping straight through earth, air, water, and, indeed, people, at a rate of 100 trillion per second, without leaving a single trace.

That same property, however, makes neutrinos extremely difficult to detect—they have been nicknamed the "ghost particle." Not altogether inaccurately compared to a huge camera, the MINOS detector is made from 485 iron plates studded with sensors, each of which is a buffer for slowing down and, in the end, capturing any neutrinos that spiraled through the room. With a trap rate of about one neutrino every two hours, MINOS is able to measure their oscillation speed, which, our guide explained, holds the key to understanding whether these ubiquitous yet elusive particles have mass, and, if so, how much.



While an advanced degree in physics would probably be necessary to tease out the specifics of the experiment and its findings thus far, it's equally awe-inspiring just to gaze on the dense nest of magnetized steel plates, bunched cables, and a multilevel maze of walkways that we were unable to explore, all constructed to capture evidence of an unlikely and otherwise invisible interaction. It's like sci-fi spy technology, with hidden machines picking up and decoding secret broadcasts within the earth.

Elsewhere in the cavern lay the remains of an abandoned earlier experiment designed to witness proton decay (an event that has still not been observed) and a cryogenic dark matter detector, hunting for WIMPs — the heavy, slow, and potentially even more difficult-to-detect cousins of neutrinos.



Interestingly, MINOS, while being an acronym for Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search, also refers to Minos, the mythological king who commissioned Daedalus's labyrinth but went on to be a judge in Hades, the underworld of lost souls.

In the end, it was hard not to wonder what will happen to the machine itself—so heavy it seems effectively pointless for anyone ever to dismantle it—and the brightly lit room it is now housed in. Within even 100, let alone 1,000, 10,000, or even hundreds of thousands of years, this huge gate of iron like a camera lens buried inside the earth, will inevitably fall into disuse, its experimental value gone, its costs too expensive to meet.



Then, someday, if it is not removed piece by piece in a mirror image of the construction process that brought it here, it will outlast even the pyramids, just as mysterious to future generations and just as geometrically abstract as those monumental constructions in the sand.


On the drive from Cape Canaveral to Miami, Venue stopped off in Fort Pierce to fortify ourselves with a gator tail sandwich, when we serendipitously happened across the National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum.


A full-scale model of the Apollo Space Capsule used by Underwater Demolition Team Frogmen to practice attaching a flotation device and rescuing the astronauts after splash down.


Members of the Underwater Demolition Team suffered from nitrogen narcosis often enough that they carried these cards "so as not to be mistaken for an intoxicated person."

After a quick tour through the eclectic collection of beach survey maps, underwater demolition equipment, "multi-purpose canine" memorabilia and the Maersk Alabama lifeboat in which Captain Phillips was held hostage, and even a surreal scale model of Osama bin Laden's Abbottabod compound (the model was "donated by CBS 60 Minutes"), we were ready to hit the road again—until we noticed the curious landscaping of the Museum's grassy exterior.



Against a backdrop of palm trees and suburban shrubbery, a row of rusted iron rails jutted out from the ground to form a forest of diagonal spikes, ringed by concrete pyramids, each set in a carefully maintained circle of white sand.



Signage explained that these were obstacles used for training by Frogmen during World War II, storming a simulated Omaha Beach on the white sand of Fort Pierce. From 1943 through 1945, a Seabee battalion built copies of German defenses and placed them in the water, for repeated waves of Frogmen to practice blowing up.

When the war was over, the remaining obstacles were abandoned until, in 1991, the Army Corps of Engineers finally pulled them out and donated the least deteriorated ones to the Navy SEAL Museum.



Like a brutalist sculpture garden, the closely mown lawn was peppered with an aggressive geometry of eroding concrete. On closer inspection, a taxonomy of obstacles emerged, starting with an advance guard of horned scullys—concrete blocks adorned with three or four iron spikes that would have been placed just offshore, in six to eight feet of water, in order to rip the bottom out of landing craft.



Cut rails and hedgehogs—clusters of iron beams riveted together and scattered across the beach like jacks—would have come next, followed by sinuous rows of dragonteeth, or concrete tetrahedrons, that could stop armored vehicles.


An American casualty lying next to an anti-landing craft obstruction on Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944. Photograph from the U.S. Coast Guard Collection in the U.S. National Archives.



Of course, the German analogs of these practice obstacles cost hundreds of Allied lives. But, placed in their perfect white sand circles and scattered with an artful randomness across a Floridian lawn, the overall effect is reminiscent of nothing so much as a Japanese Zen rock garden—a carefully constructed and meticulously tended landscape of both attack and defense, anticipation and memorial.

Zen rock garden, Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan; photo via.
Gated “Monaco” Lake Las Vegas Homesites Looking West on Grand Corniche Drive, Bankrupt MonteLago Village and Ponte Vecchio Bridge Beyond, Henderson, Nevada (2010)

Photographer Michael Light divides his time between San Francisco and a remote house hear Mono Lake, on the eastern flank—and in the shadow—of the Sierra Nevada. An artist widely known for his aerial work, Light flies the trip himself in a small airplane, usually departing very early in the morning, near dawn, before the turbulence builds up.

Michael Light preps his airplane for flight; photo by Venue.

Venue not only had the pleasure of flying around Mono Lake with Light, but of staying in his home for a few nights and learning more, over the course of several long conversations, about his work.

We took a nighttime hike and hunted for scorpions in the underbrush; we looked at aerial maps of the surrounding area—in fact, most of the U.S. Southwest—to discuss the invisible marbling of military & civilian airspace in the region; and we asked Light about his many projects, their different landscape emphases, the future of photography as a pursuit and profession, and what projects he might take on next.

Flying with Michael Light over Mono Lake; photos by Venue.

From SCUBA diving amidst the nuked ruins of WWII battleships in the most remote waters of the Pacific Ocean to spending years touching up and republishing photos of U.S. nuclear weapons tests for a spectacular and deeply unsettling book called 100 Suns, to his look at the Apollo program of the 1960s as an endeavor very much focused on the spatial experience of another landscape—the lunar surface—to his ongoing visual investigation of housing, urbanization, and rabid over-development in regions like Phoenix and Las Vegas, Light's own discussion of and perspective on his work was never less than compelling.

Thoughtful about the history of landscape representation and the place of his work within it, highly articulate—indeed, it's hard to forget such phrases as "the mine is a city reversed," or that the sunken ruins of WWII battleships "are dissolving like Alka-Seltzer" in the depths of the Pacific—and with an always caustic sense of humor, Light patiently answered our many questions about his work both above the ground and below sea level.

We discussed the overlapping physical pleasures of flying and SCUBA diving, how nuclear weapons have transformed the Western notion of the landscape sublime, what cameraphones are doing to the professional photographer, and what it means to transgress into today's corporate-controlled air spaces above vast mining and extraction sites in the West.

Shadow at 300’, 1300 hours, Deep Springs Valley, CA (2001)

Finally, for those of you in or around New York City this month, Light coincidentally has a new exhibition opening at the Danziger Gallery on October 30. Check back with the gallery's website for more information as the opening approaches.

• • •

Geoff Manaugh: I’d like to start by asking how the aerial view ties into the nature of your work in general. You’ve spoken to William L. Fox in an interview for the Some Dry Space exhibition about a feeling of spatial “delirium,” suggesting that the experience of moving through the sky is something viscerally attractive to you. I’m curious if you could talk about that, as a physical sensation, but also about the representational effects of the bird’s eye—or pilot’s eye—view and how it so thoroughly changes the appearance of a landscape.

Clouds Over the Jonah Natural Gas Field, Pinedale, WY (2007)

Michael Light: The short answer is that the aerial view affords a breadth of scale that offers direct access to many of the bigger, more “meta” themes that have always been of interest to me.

But let me take a few steps back and try to explain where all this came from. I got a B.A. in American Studies from Amherst many years ago, and I have since been an Americanist—not in the sense of being an apologist for America, but in the sense of someone trying to figure out what makes this country tick. It is a very, very vast country.

Sheep Hole Mountains at 400’, 0700 hours, Twentynine Palms, CA (2000)

I grew up on the end of Long Island, and I was always getting onto Highway 80 or onto more southerly interstates and heading west. The metaphor that always accompanied me, oddly enough, was one of falling into America rather than crossing it. I was falling into the vastness of America and the sheer scale of it.

Of course, after I moved to California in 1986, I caught myself coming back east quite a bit, for family or for work, and those commercial air flights across the nation, flying coast to coast, were formative and endlessly interesting to me. I don’t ever lower the window shade as requested. If the weather is clear, the odds are that what’s unfolding below, geologically, is the main attraction for me. I just found myself looking down—or looking into—America a lot, and that sense of falling into the country just grew and evolved.

I did a big piece back in the 1990s, when I was still in graduate school. It took a couple of years, but I figured out how to make pretty decent images from 30,000 feet, from the seat of a commercial airliner. For instance, you have to sit in front of the engine so that the heat doesn’t blow the picture; and it’s a contrast game, trying to get enough clarity through all the atmospheric haze and through two layers of plexiglass, and so on and so forth. That piece was based specifically on commercial flights and it was liberating for me in lots of ways.

While working on one of those images, in particular, I had something of an epiphany—I think it was somewhere over Arizona. It’s very spare, arid country, and the incursions of human settlement into it that you see from above look very much like a colony on Mars might look, or the proverbial lunar colony, and I thought “Ah ha! Look at that!” And I realized, at that moment, that maybe I could try to find or document something like a planetary landscape: the way humans live at a planetary scale and through planetary settlements.

Chidago Canyon at 500’, 1800 hours, Chalfant, CA (2001)

This was what got me, pretty soon thereafter, thinking above and beyond the earth: looking toward NASA, and their various programs over the past few decades, and that eventually became Full Moon.

FULL MOON: Composite of David Scott Seen Twice on Hadley Delta Mountain; Photographed by James Irwin, Apollo 15, 1971 (1999)

Manaugh: There’s an interesting book called Moondust by Andrew Smith, which began with Smith’s realization that we are soon approaching an historical moment when every human being who has walked on the moon will be dead. He set about trying to interview every living person—every American astronaut—who has set foot there. What makes it especially fascinating is that Smith portrays the entire Apollo program as a kind of vast landscape project, or act of landscape exploration, as if the whole thing had really just been at attempt at staging a real-life Caspar David Friedrich painting with seemingly endless Cold War funds to back it up. The place of Full Moon in your own work seems to echo that idea, of NASA lunar photography as something like the apotheosis of American natural landscape photography.

Light: The Apollo program was absolutely a landscape project—but also an extreme aerial project. And Full Moon, of course, was also driven by my own interest in the aerial view, or the aerial exterior. That project is nothing if not a really serious exploration of the aerial: that is, if you keep going up and up, the world becomes quite circular and alien. You see the world quite literally as a planet.

FULL MOON: The Ocean of Storms and the Known Sea; Photographed by Kenneth Mattingly, Apollo 16, April 16-27, 1972 (1999)

Anyway, for me, yes, the aerial view has an intense physicality. I’ve been flying planes since before I was driving. I soloed in gliders—engineless aircraft—by 14, and, by 16, I had a private pilot’s license. A glider offers a particularly intimate and very physical way of flying, because you have to work with thermals and updrafts. You don’t have an engine. You actually want it to be turbulent and bumpy up there, because that means that the air is unstable—that parts of the atmosphere are going up and other parts are going down—and, if you can stay in those up parts and find the updrafts, then you can ride it out for hours.

Also, I was lucky enough to start SCUBA diving at the age of 9.

Michael Light at 9 years old, Bimini, Bahamas (1972)

Flying and going underwater are completely connected, at least in my mind. The three-dimensionality of each of them is something I’ve experienced from a very early age, and it is one of my greatest ongoing pleasures. I would say that there’s a tremendous amount of physical pleasure in both—and that, occasionally, it would even be accurate to call it ecstasy.

It’s like skiing or long-distance running: everything’s in the groove, everything sort of falls into place, you’re flying really beautifully, or, oftentimes in my work, you’re transgressing over something, or you’ve got a very intense subject, and you are trying to figure something out as an artist or as a citizen.

Michael Light at 49 years old, Petaluma, CA (2012)

You mentioned delirium. There’s also a certain kind of delirium—a spatial delirium, sure—simply in the pleasure of learning something new and, for me, hopefully putting that 3-dimensional experience into 2-dimensional photographic form. And if it’s good—if the image is good—then hopefully other people can get some of what I got.

Manaugh: This reminds me of a conversation I had with a writer named Kitty Hauser about the history of aerial archaeology. To make a long story short, aerial archaeology, using photographs, was born from military reconnaissance flights over the European front in World War I. The pilots there began noticing that they could see features in the landscape—such as buried or ruined buildings—that were invisible from the ground. When that technique of viewing from above was later exported to England, particularly as the leisure classes and retired military types found the free time and the personal wealth to purchase private airplanes, aerial archaeology as a pursuit really took off, if you’ll excuse the pun. And these early pioneers began to realize that, for example, there are certain times of day when things are more clearly revealed by the angle of the sun, including shadows appearing in wheat and barley fields that, when seen from above, are revealed to be an archaeological site otherwise hidden beneath the plant life. I’m curious how coming back to the same locations at certain times of day, or in certain kinds of light, can make sites or landscapes into radically different photographic experiences—with different depths or different reliefs—and how you plan for that in your shots.

Light: If I go out on an expedition for weeks shooting with an assistant, I don’t immediately fall into that groove. A few days in, everything will align. It certainly is a kind of discipline. You’re flying and imaging and circling—again and again and again, around and around and around—because you can’t just move the camera two inches to the left, or wait 15 minutes. You’re moving along at 60 miles an hour through space. So you have to shoot it again and again and again, until, finally, you get to a point where your physical senses are moving faster than your mind, and you’ve made all the shots that you think you should make—which are generally the worst ones—and it’s at that point that you come up with something genuinely new.

Specifically, I tend to shoot early in the morning and then again in the evening, which is pretty much standard practice because, of course, the lower axial light gives that 3-dimensionality and creates a feeling of revelation. Every once in a while, though, I will shoot in the desert at midday, but it’s usually only when I’m specifically seeking a flat, blown out, almost stunning or hallucinatory light.

Deep Springs Valley at 500’, 1600 hours, Big Pine, CA (2001)

But, early in the morning, the sun seems to go off in the desert like a gun—and, of course, the sun is much softer in the evening, because there’s so much more dust in the air. You really have to get up early. I’ll shoot for an hour and a half, which is all I can really take with the doors off of the aircraft. It’s very windy. It’s very intense. The camera I use is about 20 pounds. So we’ll come back and we’ll have some breakfast—and I’m exhausted. I’ll probably nap around noon for an hour or two then, come 4:00pm or so, we gather our forces and go back up.

It’s always much more turbulent in the afternoon in summer. Summer is when I tend to fly, though, because, of course, in the colder months it’s just too cold. It’s also just a lot more dangerous to cross the mountains when there’s snow on them.

But, on summer afternoons, it can be a wild ride. You strap in there tight. My glider background is helpful here; I know the plane will continue to fly, for instance, and that there’s nothing to be super-scared of. I know I’m at the edges of my equipment’s performance. The specifications on the plane degrade measurably when you take the doors off, because you generate a tremendous amount of drag. In hot temperatures, the engine also tends to run hot and, the hotter the summer air is, the fewer molecules there are under the wings of the aircraft, the fewer molecules there are to combust with the engine fuel, the fewer molecules there are for the propeller to bite into, and you get much more turbulent air. Your aircraft performance falls off measurably.

Afternoon Thunderstorm Looking West, Near Rock Springs, WY (2007)

For example, I often fly from San Francisco over the Sierras to Mono Lake in the summer. The Sierras, on the west side, have a very gradual slope. But on the east side it’s a very dramatic, very steep escarpment. It’s a drop of 7,000 feet almost in a straight line. You have a very smooth, very fast trip up the western slope, but, when you get to the escarpment, you hit what’s called a “rotor.” That’s a very turbulent place where the usual land-to-airflow relationship completely falls apart, because the support has been taken away. For those five miles or so, going east, you’re in a tumbly, sometimes chaotic atmosphere and it can be extremely dangerous, depending on the speed of the wind.

When I hit the rotor, I just think of it in terms of river rafting: looking for eddies, back-flow currents, whirlpools, and so forth. Even though it’s invisible, I know where I’m going to hit turbulence. Even though I can’t see the air, I know, extrapolating from the way that water behaves, where the turbulence will be—like, beyond that rock mountain spire over there, it’s going to be gnarly.

City-Owned Motocross Park Looking North, I-70 Beyond, Lakewood, CO (2009)

To go back to your question: in the six, almost seven years I’ve been flying with engines, the landscape is so perceptually dependent on the type of light that’s illuminating it. You really do get radically different spaces in different kinds of light. A different kind of vibe. Seasons will also change the way a landscape looks—or, I should say, the light itself seasonally changes.

On an artistic level, the ever-changing nature of what I do and how I do it, and even the instability of my position in the sky over the landscape—it’s all part of my process and it’s something I enjoy.

Manaugh: Let’s go back to SCUBA diving. When we talked four or five years ago in Nevada, you were heading off to the Bikini Atoll, to dive amidst the ruins of U.S. warships, and I’d love to learn more about that project. How did it come about, what were you seeking to document, and what were the results? I’m also fascinated by analogy of being in the empty volume of the sky versus being buried in the very full volume of the ocean and how that affects the sense of space in your photography.

Light: The Bikini work grew out of my earlier involvement with imagery of nuclear detonations, which, as you know, was a project called 100 Suns. That was an archival endeavor that came out in 2003.

100 Suns (2003)

As a photographer or maker of images, I’m always as interested in trying to figure out the meaning of the trillions of photographs that have already been made as I am in making new ones of my own. And, culturally, I find it interesting to think about the meaning of photography, in the very large American contexts of Full Moon and 100 Suns. I think of both projects as landscape projects and, certainly, they are also investigations into American power and the peculiarities of American scale.

Nicola Twilley: As a side note, how does an archival project like 100 Suns work, technically, as far as reproducing the images goes?

Light: You scan them. You go in and you clean them up. You do whatever the approach of the hour is. You wind up almost lovingly inside each of the historical photographs. And you get very fond of them; you think of them almost as your own. Of course, they’re not—primarily because you haven’t had the experience of actually going to that space at that particular time and choosing how to make that image.

But I had a very strong desire to go—to make a pilgrimage—to, if not the Nevada Test Site, which I never could get into, then at least to the Pacific Proving Grounds, which I could get to. I tried to get into the Nevada Test Site. You can visit it, physically, but to get over it—in the air—and to make images is basically impossible. The last person to get permission to do that was Emmet Gowin, with his remarkable images. He got in in the 1990s. It took him a decade, and that was before 9/11. I tried again, and I was negotiating directly with the head of the site, but I just could never do it.

However, one can get out to Bikini, and the way one gets to Bikini hasn’t changed. At the time I went, there was a dive operation there run by the people of Bikini—who actually live 500 miles away, on a rather awful rock without a lagoon, in a place that they were moved to in 1945. They were basically booted off their atoll by the U.S. government. The people run this dive operation really for propaganda reasons, using it as a method to tell their story.

Bikini Island, Radioactively Uninhabitable Since 1954, Bikini Atoll (2003)

What one goes to dive for there are ships that were sunk in the Operation Crossroads tests of 1946.

At that point, the U.S. Navy—this was, of course, right after Hiroshima and Nagasaki—wanted to know if naval warfare was now utterly obsolete. Could a single bomb destroy an entire navy or a flotilla of ships?

100 SUNS: 058 BAKER/21 kilotons/Bikini Atoll/1946 (2003)

So they gathered almost 100 vessels for the tests, making all sorts of strange, mythic gestures. For instance, they brought the Nagato, which Admiral Yamamoto was on when he orchestrated the attack on Pearl Harbor. They brought that all the way from Tokyo. They brought out the Prinz Eugen from Germany, which was Germany’s most modern battleship. They brought the first American aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Saratoga, out.

The ships they chose were these giant wartime icons, and they were bombed both from the air, with the Able test, and from 90 feet underwater, by the Baker test. The Baker test gave us the most spectacularly iconic images of Bikini: a water column being blasted up into the sky with the Wilson bell cloud around it that we all know so well.

100 SUNS: 059 BAKER/21 kilotons/Bikini Atoll/1946 (2003)

Those ships are 180 feet down at the bottom of Bikini Lagoon, to this day. They were functional at the time, and they were fully loaded with weaponry and fuel. They were unpopulated, although there were farm animals chained to the decks of the ships. So it’s creepy.

Diving there is pretty hairy. It’s way beyond recreational safety diving limits. 180 feet is dark. 180 feet is cold. You take on a tremendous amount of nitrogen down there. It’s pretty technical. You have to do decompression diving, which is inherently dangerous—you have to breathe helium trimix at about thirty feet below the boat for nearly an hour after twenty minutes at depth, hoping that no tiger shark comes along to eat you, as you adjust.

Shark, Bikini Lagoon (2007)

Once you’re down there, you can penetrate the ships, which are dissolving like Alka-Seltzer. It’s very entropic. You’re suffering, at that depth, from nitrogen narcosis. It’s like having three martinis. You’re pretty zonked out.

I went twice: in 2003 and, again, in 2007. During those trips, I made images from the air, on the surface, and underwater. I dove Bikini Lagoon, down to those ships on the bottom, twice.

Diver descending to 180 feet, Bikini Lagoon (2007)

It was one of the most challenging landscapes I have ever worked in, because almost inconceivable violence occurred to these places—both to Bikini Atoll and to Enewetak Atoll. I only physically went to Bikini Atoll, although I did fly over Enewetak. But both atolls were subjected to human gestures that are, as I said, almost inconceivably violent. To try to represent that photographically is very, very difficult.

In fact, the radiological disaster that occurred in 1954 happened simply because the winds changed direction at the wrong time, blowing back over the atoll at Bikini. During the largest nuclear detonation the United States ever did out there, which was 15 megatons, the winds shifted and everything blew back over the islands. It’s the worst radiological disaster in U.S. history.

Manaugh: I don’t want to sound naïve, but is it safe even to be there? Can you walk around and swim in the water and not get radiation poisoning?

Light: Bikini Atoll is still radioactive and still uninhabited to this day, but, yes, you can go there. As long as you don’t drink the water or eat the coconuts—anything that actually comes in contact with the soil, which has a layer of Cesium-137 in it—then you’re fine. The islands have healed. You know, it’s tropical. They’ve healed. There aren’t five-headed crabs walking around. The fish are fine; you can eat the fish. But it’s still pretty radioactive. I’m walking around in a Speedo bathing suit, thinking, “Wow, I’m glad I’m never having kids, ever!” You can’t feel radiation, but it’s there.

So there you are, having a tropical paradise moment, surrounded by tropical paradise visuals, yet you know, in your head, that this is one of the most violent landscapes on earth.

100 SUNS: 086 MOHAWK/360 kilotons/Enewetak Atoll/1956 (2003)

Two commercial aircraft fly the Marshall Islands. There is no access to private aircraft. The distances are too great. Bikini and Enewetak are in the middle of nowhere—that’s why they were used as test sites in the first place. To get aerial access to them was extremely difficult. I had to shoot from those two commercial air shuttles.

Over Enewetak I was able to get some pretty great images of the Mike crater. Mike was the first H-bomb test or, I should say, the first test of a “thermonuclear device.” It was not a bomb.

Mile-Wide, 200’ Deep 1952 MIKE Crater, 10.4 Megatons, Enewetak Atoll (2003)

That was Edward Teller’s baby, and one big-ass crater. That was 10.4 megatons. The scale of that kind of explosion dwarfs all of the ordinance detonated in both world wars combined. Five seconds after that detonation, the fireball alone was five miles wide. These were really, really big explosions. It’s hard to get your head around how big they were.

100 SUNS: 065 MIKE/10.4 megatons/Enewetak Atoll/1952 (2003)

Getting above and working with the Mike crater was terrific. I was able to get above Bikini, but not above the Bravo crater or out to the farthest edge of the atoll. Bravo was the 15-megaton test that left Bikini radioactive.

100 SUNS: 099 BRAVO/15 megatons/Bikini Atoll/1954 (2003)

However, I was able to dive in the Bravo crater while I was there, which was one of the creepiest experiences of my life. It’s still quite radioactive out on the edge of the crater. There’s a bunker right on the edge of Bravo Crater that’s sheared off at the top.

Radioactive Bunker Facing Mile-Wide, 200’ Deep 1954 BRAVO Crater, Bikini Atoll (2003)

Anyway, it’s obviously very deep and very rich territory. It was pretty amazing to be able to make the pilgrimage after having spent so much time with the archival material as I worked on 100 Suns. I have always felt ambivalent about the Bikini work. I’ve never known quite what to do with it. It is hard to work out there. I think that, ultimately, I will do a small book that will move between historical imagery of the ships and of the servicemen. There were 40,000 servicemen stationed there for several years while the Crossroads tests were happening.

I went back in 2007—I think that was right after you and I first talked about this. I got to do some aerial work and some more work on the ground, but, primarily, that trip was about bringing out a digital camera, which I did not have in 2003, and using it underwater. I had a housing and some lights, but I was not very successful in imaging those ships recognizably at those depths. It’s hard.

Ship Sunk by 1946 Crossroads Tests, Bikini Lagoon (2007)

There’s a lot of organic matter in the water. It’s incredibly dark. It’s very difficult to figure out, conceptually, a way to image the country’s first aircraft carrier. For example, I can’t back away from it enough, underwater, to get the whole thing. In theory, one could put together composite images, shot at a fairly close level, and then sort of stitch together what should look like a ship. But it’s a challenge.

Growth on Ship Sunk By 1946 Crossroads Tests, Bikini Lagoon (2007)

For me, throughout the Bikini work, both in 2003 and in 2007, I have taken the approach of reversing the positive as a conceit toward a sense of visually representing radiation and visually suggesting multiple energy sources other than the sun—multiple sources of light. There are also questions about narrative: about entropy, light, Hades, narcosis, dissolution.

You’ve got this kind of X-ray death trip, if you will.

Tower of the IJN Nagato Battleship, Sunk By 1946 Crossroads Tests, Bikini Lagoon (2007)

It’s a very, very strong feeling, diving amongst those ships, and the ghosts of all the people who died on those ships, and knowing what they were used for and how they were sunk. It almost feels like the last gasp of an industrial era that’s now long over and gone. It was really an age of iron. It’s as far from the digital world that we live in now that you can imagine. It’s a dead era, and the work is tough. It’s not warm and fuzzy, or nostalgic. None of that is what Bikini is about. It’s about as dark as you can get.

Along the USS Saratoga, Sunk By 1946 Crossroads Tests, Bikini Lagoon (2007)

Manaugh: In the context of 100 Suns and even hearing you say things like, “as dark as you can get,” it almost seems as though sites like the Mike crater and even these tropical ruins are like spatial byproducts of very large-scale light events. It’s as if the light of a counter-sun—the nuclear explosion—has created its own landscapes of extreme over-exposure and violence. The scenes you’re documenting, in a sense, are byproducts of light.

Light: Yes, some of this is important to me, and I do tend to think oppositionally, in rather binary terms.

Inside Radioactive Photographic Bunker Built In 1956, Aomon Island, Bikini Atoll (2003)

There are so many levels of meaning to the bomb. There are landscape meanings. There are political meanings. There are industrial meanings. There are scientific meanings. To me, as I mentioned, this is a landscape book at bottom.

I personally see the moment that the Mike device detonated in 1952 as the moment when the classical landscape sublime—which, of course, up to that point was the domain of either the divine or of massively powerful natural forces beyond human control—switched. In 1952, the landscape sublime shifted wholly over to humans as the architect.

I was interested in looking closer at that moment when humans became “the divine”—as powerful as, if not more powerful than, the natural forces that they’re subject to on the planet. What was the effect of that—what did that do to landscape representation—when the sublime became an architecture of ourselves?

100 SUNS: 081 TRUCKEE/210 kilotons/Christmas Island/1962 (2003)

With the attainment of a thermonuclear fusion device, humans are igniting their own stars. What does that mean in landscape terms? What does that mean in architectural terms? When you talk about light itself creating a landscape and leaving behind these giant craters, it’s very resonant territory.

Arguably, humans firing up their own stars could be seen as the absolute pinnacle of a tool-bearing civilization—although it’s equally fair to say that it could be seen as humanity’s greatest tragedy, because it came out of a cauldron of violence and was immediately put back into a cauldron of violence.

100 SUNS: 093 BRAVO/15 megatons/Bikini Atoll/1954 (2003)

To bring us back to ground a little bit here, I did 100 Suns, and I did Full Moon, and I continue to do my aerial forays into the American West, because these are things that I want to learn about and try to understand. I just truly didn’t understand fusion and fission; I really didn’t understand space. I think that, while I have a taste—and the human mind has a taste—for scale, there’s only so much scale that we can take. Even then, we need to have it served to us in smaller chunks.

I found that other books and investigations pertaining to outer space were just way too broad and, in the end, didn’t tell me anything. I don’t get much out of the Hubble images, for example. They’re too big. I have no entranceway into those to conceptualize or think about the subject, so I wind up with cotton candy or some nebula image that’s pretty, sure, but I can’t get any substance out of it.

100 Suns never would have happened without having spent five years on the surface of the moon, metaphorically. Studying the nature of light in a vacuum—that was really the primary interest of mine, artistically, in taking on that project.

FULL MOON: Astronaut's Shadow; Photographed by Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17, 1972 (1999)

How does light work without atmosphere to break it up? It’s sharper than anything our eyes have evolved to see, and it behaves very differently than it does when diffused by an atmosphere. What does that do to the physical act—the actual technology—of photography as it tries to capture that light? What does that light do to a landscape?

What does that landscape do to all the other landscapes we’ve already seen in the history of landscape photography?

FULL MOON: Morning Sun Near Surveyor Crater, With Blue Lens Flare; Photographed by Charles Conrad, Apollo 12, 1969 (1999)

I spent a lot of time looking at the sun’s effects on the surface of the moon, in near-vacuum conditions, and I thought, “Well, what’s the next logical step for this?”

FULL MOON: Solar Wind Collector; Photographed by Alan Bean, Apollo 12, 1969 (1999)

Certainly, it’s not Mars, as so many publishers would suggest. It seemed more logical to go look directly into that sun and, at least in terms of the 20th century, very clear that I should step back just two or three decades, and deal with the bomb. Of course, the Apollo program never would have happened without ICBMs.

On that level, it’s logical—but it also acts as a kind of psychological journey. In 100 Suns, there’s no handholding that occurs for the viewer to guide them between attraction and repulsion. You’re just thrown into it. There’s science afterward; there’s text afterward; there are explanations afterward; there are politics afterward. But that kind of frontal experience was what I wanted you to feel, as a viewer.

It was a very daunting subject. The scale of America, and the scale of its power, offers an infinite mountain of mystery.

Twilley: In terms of both the moon and some of these military ruins, like the Nevada Test Site, physical access for the photographer is all but impossible. Has this made you interested in remote-viewing, remotely controlled cameras, or even drone photography? What might those technologies do, not necessarily to the future of photography, but to the future of the photographer?

Light: Absolutely. I think it’s important to remember that the vast majority of the Apollo photographs were made without anyone looking through a viewfinder.

Those cameras were mounted on the surface of the moon or on the chest area of the spacesuit. With a proper wide-angle lens and an electric advance, the astronauts basically just pointed their bodies in 360-degree circles, at whatever area they were collecting the samples from, and that was the photograph. They were trained very carefully to make sure they could operate the cameras, and there are certainly examples of handheld camera images on the surface of the moon, but a lot of the images were these sort of automatic images you’re talking about—photography without a photographer.

FULL MOON: Alan Bean at Sharp Crater With the Handtool Carrier; Photographed by Charles Conrad, Apollo 12, 1969 (1999)

It’s one of those things that I find interesting about Full Moon, that what we consider to be interesting, photographically, can happen absent of a human set of eyes making the image. Today, as you mention, it’s only getting more extreme.

I should say, at this particular photographic moment, as a photographer myself, I feel overwhelmed. I have not figured out where photography is going. I don’t think anyone has. I certainly know that it’s changing, radically, and sometimes in ways that make me want to run back to the 19th century.

For one thing, everyone’s a photographer now, because everyone has a phone, and those cameras are getting very good. The cameras themselves are doing more and more of the work, as well, work that, traditionally, was the field of the photographer, so the quality of photographs—in the classic sense of things like quality of exposure, density, resolution, contrast, and so forth—is going up and up and up. And, of course, as you well know, there are now systems in place for total and instantaneous publishing of one’s work via the Internet. I think we are entering a world of total documentation.

Obviously, all of this visual information is going to continue to proliferate. I don’t know how to navigate my way through that. I tell myself—because I have my own methods, my own cameras, and my own crazy aerial platform—that my pictures have a view that you are not going to get from a drone.

Personal drones are going to proliferate, and our eyes, soon enough, are going to be able to go anywhere and everywhere without our bodies. Humans have a tremendous interest—they always have had—in extending themselves where they physically cannot go. That’s just picking up more speed now—it’s going faster and faster—and the density of the data is thickening, becoming smog.

I think that photography, or what we currently consider photography, will become more about the concept or the idea driving the picture than the actual picture itself. Maybe that has always been the case. Metaphors are obviously applicable to everything, and you can find them in everything, if you want to. It’s not so much the picture—or, it’s not so much the information in the picture—it’s the spin on it. Information does not equal meaning. Meaning is bigger than information.

I used to fly model aircraft as a kid. It’s a powerful fantasy: mounting a camera on a little electric helicopter and running it around the corner, lifting off over the fence, the hedgerow, the border, and seeing what you can see. I actually do it physically now, in airplanes, and I’m very invested in the physical experience of that. It’s a big part of my aerial work: the politics of transgressing private property in a capitalist society.

I may not be able to get into that gated community on the outskirts of Las Vegas—which is what I’m photographing now, a place called Lake Las Vegas—but, legally, I can get above it and I can make the stories and the images I want to make.

“Monaco” Lake Las Vegas Homes on Gated Grand Corniche Drive, Henderson, NV (2010)

That homeowners’ association, or that world created by developers, wants total control over its narrative, and, in general, they have it. They exclude anyone who wants to tell a different story. So far, with the exception of military air space and occasional prohibited air space around nuclear power plants and that sort of thing, I can still tell my own stories, and I do.

A couple of years ago I went out to Salt Lake City. I sold one of my big handmade books to the art museum there, and I also made an effort to see Kennecott Copper, which is owned by Rio Tinto. I thought they might be interested in buying some of the work—but, as it turned out, they were not at all interested, and, in fact, seemed to wish I didn’t exist.

I met with their PR person—a very nice, chatty PR kind of lady. I showed her this spectacular, 36-inch high and 44-inch wide book of photographs featuring this incredible, almost Wagnerian hole in the ground. And the only thing that she could say, upon seeing the book, was: “How on earth did you get permission?” Not: Wow, these are interesting pictures, or whatever. She instantly zoomed into the question of the legal permission to represent or tell the story of this site. I said: “Well, I didn’t get permission, actually, because I didn’t need permission.” And that was anathema to her; it was anathema to the whole corporate structure that wants to control the story of the Bingham Mine.

Earth’s Largest Excavation, 2.5 Miles Wide and .5 Miles Deep, Bingham Copper Mine, UT (2006)

Anyway, I think it’s through my own selfishness that I would not want to send a drone up to transgress over a site when I could do it, instead. I could just sit at my computer screen and kick back in my chair—but we spend enough time in chairs as it is. It’s more that I am putting my butt on the line; I’m breaking no laws, but there is the experience of physical exploration that I would be denied by using drones. Obviously, in areas where I truly cannot go—like the moon—or where I wouldn’t want to go—like on the edge of one of those nuclear detonations—then I’d be thrilled to have a remote.

Manaugh: You mentioned control over the narrative of the copper mine. It’s as if Kennecott has two-dimensional control over their narrative, through image rights, but they don’t have volumetric, or three-dimensional, control over the narrative, which you can enter into with an airplane and then relate to others in a totally different way.

Light: Of course.

My particular approach, aerially, is very different. The obvious answer is: why not just Google Map it, and zoom in, and then throw a little three-dimensionality on it by moving a little Google Earth lever? But the actual act of going in at the low altitudes that I do lets me make these particular images. I don’t do verticals; I do obliques, because they allow for a relational tableau to happen. To go in low—to make that physical transgression over Bingham or over Lake Las Vegas or over this or that development—is great, and I think it’s a viewpoint that is unique.

Looking East Over Unbuilt “Ascaya” Lots, Black Mountain Beyond, Henderson, NV (2010)

Manaugh: You’ve mentioned Las Vegas, but I’d also like to talk about your Los Angeles work. You basically have two oppositional series—L.A. Day and L.A. Night—which really makes explicit the role light plays in changing how we see a landscape. For instance, in L.A. Night, the city is represented as this William Blake-like microcosm of the universe, with the lights of the houses in the Hollywood hills, and the cars on the freeways, mimicking the stars above them. The city becomes a copy of the sky.

Untitled/Downtown Dusk, Los Angeles (2005)

Then there’s L.A. Day, which confronts the massive Ballardian geometry of the freeways themselves, baking under the sun.

Long Beach Freeway and Atlantic Boulevard Looking Southeast, L.A. River Beyond (2004)

I’m interested in what the city is doing for you in these photographs. Is it a representation of the end of civilization, or is it a strange depiction of new, golden dawn for urban form? What is your attraction to and metaphoric use of the city—of Los Angeles, in particular?

Light: Well, these are very interesting questions. One thing to bear in mind, first of all, is that the day work and the night work is now quite old work to me. The day work was shot in 2004 and the night work was shot in 2005 and it’s just a Los Angeles; it’s not the Los Angeles. It’s very much a particular spot in time that I found myself at that moment. I’ll get into that in a little more detail in a minute.

Back in 1986, when I moved to San Francisco, I wanted to come west for a lot of reasons, one of which was to work for the environment. I had worked for the Sierra Club doing political lobbying with their D.C. office for a couple of years right out of school in the late 1980s. I’ve remained a pretty strong environmentalist, although I try not to make my work tendentious or overtly activist in that sense. I want to be more complicated than that.

Looking Northwest, Somewhere Near Torrance (2004)

Anyway, in San Francisco, the default attitude is to look down your nose at the Southland—like, “Oh, yeah, Los Angeles. It’s everything that’s wrong with America.” The more I’ve lived in California, though, which is 26 years now, the more I have come to realize that this is an extraordinarily common, but very facile, view of Los Angeles. I hope I have grown in the depth of my views about L.A., I’d say, because, if there’s any one thing I’ve learned about photographing Los Angeles—like anywhere else, but particularly L.A.—it’s that, every time you shoot, it’s a different city. L.A. in the spring is one thing. L.A. in the dry summer is another. L.A. day. L.A. night. L.A. color. L.A. black and white. I have been humbled, I think, in a positive way in my views of Los Angeles. Of course, maybe I’ve just gotten more cynical or maybe I’ve gotten a little more complicatedly environmental. But I’m not condemnatory about that city the way I used to be.

L.A. is a massive thing. This is one of the reasons why I was drawn to it in the first place. It’s so big. It’s so complex. Is it apocalyptic? Well, yes; it has a certain apocalyptic quality to it. But, if I’m trying to understand America, or trying to understand the bomb, how could I not try to understand L.A.?

So L.A. Day came directly out of doing 100 Suns. 100 Suns came out in 2003 and I had been spending a tremendous amount of time metaphorically looking at “suns.” Obviously, in L.A. Day, one of the major tropes is that I am shooting directly into the sun, and I’m dealing with air, light, and atmosphere. In that regard, I’m also exploring many of the same things as Full Moon.

I was also just beginning to work with 4x5 negatives, and wanted to go as high-key as possible, to go back into that annihilating desert light. A lot of it was shot either early in the morning or very late in the day, but the whiteness of the light at midday is a very dry, Western, annihilating light that I was also interested in investigating. There’s an image that I’m particularly fond of: it’s downtown L.A. with the river in front, and the city is almost vaporizing. It’s almost just lifting up into the ether. I guess I wasn’t overtly looking for a nuclear moment, something coming so literally from 100 Suns, but, in my mind, that image really—at least, metaphorically—bridges those two projects.

Downtown Los Angeles Looking West, 1st Street Bridge and L.A. River in Foreground (2004)

The night work was kind of a binary reflex. I had been thinking about the old 19th-century blue-sensitive films, where the skies would go pure white, for a while. Full Moon, obviously, is the reversal of that, where the ground—the surface of the moon—is white with undiluted sunlight and the sky is endlessly black.

In the day in L.A. you get the obverse: a terrestrial sky, if you will. L.A. Night is another reversal and a kind of the binary analogue to the moon and its vacuum sky.

Untitled/River Stars, Los Angeles (2005)

Those things were operating in my mind, although the night work also came out of a technical challenge I wanted to face. I wanted to get this 4x5 camera to work from a helicopter. I can only go one-sixtieth of a second. Slower than that and I get a blur. The challenge was: can I actually get enough light on the film at one-sixtieth of a second, either at dusk or in pure dark? Can I even make this work?

I discovered very cheap—relatively speaking—Robinson R22 helicopters, operating out of Van Nuys, that I could get for something like $230 an hour with a pilot. The physical thrill of having your own private dragonfly, really, which is what these helicopters are, also drove my interest. I was doing all this day work and I thought, well: let’s try a night flight. Let’s actually drift over the vastness and the endlessness of the city, and all the light washing around in that basin. It is exquisitely sparkly. It’s delightful. It has some enchantment in a way that Los Angeles, in daylight, does not. It’s rife with metaphor with all the little lights standing in for all the little people.

Untitled/Hollywood, Los Angeles (2005)

I think that, in all of my work since the late 1980s, there has been a transposition between up and down, or a loss of gravitational pull, and that’s very important to me.

FULL MOON: Edward White at 17,500 mph Over the Gulf of Mexico; Photographed by James McDivitt, Gemini 4, 1965 (1999)

A sense of vertigo or spinning in space, the full 3-dimensionality of space—the spatial delirium we were talking about earlier. I’ve always been interested in imagery that gives me a sense of looking up when I am actually looking down. That reversal is something I try to look for.

Sawtooth Mountains Diptych, ID (2012)

But that night work was very much of a moment in time in my own production—meaning that I would not go back to L.A. and make pictures like that again.

The work I’m doing over Vegas couldn’t be more different. It’s color. It’s very much lower to the ground. It’s much more specific to its content. In aerial work for me, not only is there tremendous pleasure in moving through space, 3-dimensionally, there is also tremendous pleasure in moving over and around and amongst geology and amongst actual formations of the land. Much of the content of the western work is about that dialogue between geology and the built world.

Empty Lots in the “Marseilles” Lake Las Vegas Community, Henderson, NV (2011)

The subtitle of my larger project, Some Dry Space, is An Inhabited West. My point is that there is no place that’s untouched anymore. The west is a giant human park.

But, that said, there is still lot of space left and it’s really fun to move through that space. It’s fun to say, well, okay, here’s Phoenix or here’s Los Angeles, but how can I make images that actually show the power of the geology of a place? How do I represent two different time scales? How do I photograph the human one and the tectonic one? I find that dialogue, between a human time frame and the time frame of the land, to be an interesting one. I try to capture both when I can, preferably adjacent to each other in the same picture.

New Construction On East Porter Drive, Camelback Mountain Beyond, Scottsdale, AZ (2007)

Twilley: What have you been trying to capture or represent in your most recent trips out there?

Light: Every flight is different. Every mindset is different. I find that I take radically different pictures each time I go up. It’s an interesting thing. I’ve contained myself to two areas—Lake Las Vegas and the MacDonald Ranch, which is this whole side of a mountain that’s been completely sculpted into house pads. It is the most spectacular, simple engineering project I think I’ve ever seen. It’s very dramatic. Parts of it are built out; parts of it aren’t. I don’t know what the final awful sales name of the development will be, but these will be very high-end homes.

I’ve really taken on the domestic side of Las Vegas, where “California dreams” are to be had on the cheap—and then on the extraordinarily inflated side of things, the delusional, opulent side of things.

Vegas is a very easy target for the sophisticated East Coast cultural critic to come out and judge. But that line of critique is a dead end. It’s not new territory, and it also dismisses the people—the end-users—without asking any questions about how they got there. I’ll nail the developers any day of the week: this is a calculated, rationalized capitalist agenda for them. But the people at the end, on the receiving side of it, the people who are trying to build their lives and their dreams, on whatever unstable sands that they can or can’t afford out there—I would like to present them critically but without condemnation.

Halted “Bella Fiore” Houses and Bankrupt “Falls” Golf Course, Lake Las Vegas, Henderson, NV (2011)

The L.A. work was too high and atmospheric to get political. Now that I’m down, flying much lower and getting closer and closer to the material, I think the work can carry more of an agenda. It is a presentation with sophisticated layering, I hope, rather than a blanket condemnation. Otherwise, I’m looking down my nose, saying, “Oh, look at these poor fools living in Las Vegas, while I’m up in San Francisco living the way people should live.”

The more work I do in Las Vegas, the more I see parallels between the mining industry—and the extraction history of the west—and the inhabitation industry. They do the same sort of things to the land; they grade, flatten, and format the land in similar ways. It can be hard to tell the difference sometimes between a large-scale housing development being prepped for construction and a new strip mine where some multinational firm is prospecting for metals.

Unbuilt “Ascaya” Lots and Cul De Sac Looking West, Henderson, NV (2011)

In other words, the extraction industry and the inhabitation industry are two sides of the same coin. The terraforming that takes place to make a massive development on the outskirts of a city has the same order, and follows the same structure, as much of the terraforming done in the process of mining.

That was a revelation for me. The mine is a city reversed. It is its own architecture.

Hiking Trail and Unbuilt “Ascaya” Lots, Black Mountain Beyond, Henderson, NV (2010)

This latest shoot also resulted in some structural advances in the photographs, in the way that they are composed and the way that they are offset and fragmenting. I was pleased with it. I was also testing out a new camera I had rented.

Twilley: Are you shooting digital?

Light: I am beginning to. I’m trying. I’m renting all the Hasselblads—60 megapixels—that I can get my hands on.

Two years ago now, when I had already been doing the Vegas work for a while, I wanted to get away from the very, very new. I wanted to get away from what was, before the crash, the fastest-growing city in America, and go out to find the very, very old. I flew out to the Acoma Pueblos and the Hopi Mesas, which are the oldest, continuously inhabited settlements on the North American continent.

I worked out there twice, on two separate trips, that summer of 2011. It was amazing: the super-old against the super-new. Obviously, the Vegas work is by helicopter, whereas I’m in my small aircraft over Acoma and Hopi land.

The Hopi outlawed photography, recording, and anthropological visits and sketching back in 1913. You do not roll up onto Hopi land and take pictures or make recordings without their specific permission. Likewise with Acoma: you ask permission. This is sacred territory.

Now, I’m in the air. I don’t have any problem transgressing over corporate property—private property—when I’m in America: it’s my country and I’m an American. I’m an arrogant motherfucker. If I want to make a picture, I’m going to make a picture. I don’t care who you are; I’m going to do it, if I can legally get away with it, and, in the air, I can legally get away with it.

However, I do not have that right over Hopi land and Acoma. I don’t have that right over Native American territory. It is not my country; it’s their country. It’s not my nation. It’s not my inheritance. It’s not my heritage. It’s not my politics. It’s their sovereignty. I truly do not have a right, morally, as far as I am concerned, to transgress those boundaries. I respect them.

On the other hand, I am a photographer—an aerial photographer—and I’m looking for images. I did a lot of legwork. I spoke to photographers who work aerially, and who have worked aerially for decades, in Navajo land and Hopi land. Morally—and, again, this is my compass, not necessarily your compass—my feeling is that if I’m there, in the air, and I’m able to make the image, I’ll make the image. Of course, whether I can use that image after the fact remains to be seen, and that will only be determined after open discussions with various tribal entities.

So, basically, I made images that I may never be able to publish. I made them because I wanted to make them. I made them for myself. I made them as unobtrusively as I possibly could. Mine is a small aircraft. It makes absolutely no sound if I cut the power and I descend. Then, eventually, I have to add power and climb up and out, but it’s a pretty quiet little number. And I would never photograph religious ceremonies.

But if I were ever to publish any of that work, I would show them all the images first; I would give them a copy of all the images; and I would probably offer any revenues from those images to the tribe. But there is a difference between acquiring images and presenting images to the world. It is interesting, these politics.

U.S. Magnesium plant, Great Salt Lake, UT (Google Maps, 2013)

Take the chlorine magnesium plant outside of Salt Lake. This is a plant that’s owned by—I’m blanking on his name. That plant outside Salt Lake is the worst polluter in America.

Manaugh: You mean the Hummer guy? Ira Rennert?

Light: That is exactly right. Ira Rennert. He owns the largest private residence in America. It’s in Sagaponack, New York. I grew up 12 miles from Sagaponack. I know that area very well.

Ira Rennert residence “Fair Field,” Sagaponack, New York: 29 bedrooms, 39 bathrooms, 110,000 sq feet built structures (Google Maps, 2013)

I have a mind—and I have had a mind, for a while—to transgressively photograph his insane, absurd residence at the end of Long Island. I would do a bifurcated book, featuring images of his house and images of the chlorine magnesium plant outside Salt Lake, and let him sue me. Bring it on. But, oh boy, would I have to talk to the lawyers beforehand. You have to plan for lawsuit attack.

Here’s an interesting story: There was a couple—a man and a woman—who made a bunch of money on the Internet, cashed out, and bought a Robinson R44 four-seater helicopter. They did this thing called the California Coastal Records Project, where they systematically documented every single piece of the California coast and put it online. I think you can even zoom in—the images are pretty high-res. I’m not sure if they identified everything on the coast, but there was probably some identification going on. This is the land of Google, right?

But, when they were flying past Malibu—which is just one part of the California coast—they happened to photograph Barbra Streisand’s house. She sued them for $50 million. She claimed invasion of privacy. Happily, the judge threw it out and said, “Grow up, Barbra. This is not about you.” And that is true: they weren’t singling out Barbra Streisand.

Now, if I tackle Mr. Rennert, then that is singling him out.

Anyway, the more I photograph, the more I have become attracted to architecture and the meanings of architecture. As it appears here and there out west in the landscape, architecture stands out so much. It’s just plunked down, naked and exposed. Whatever intentions it has, if there are any, are so apparent.

Houses on the Edge of the Snake River Lava Plain, Jerome, ID (2009)

As I have come to photograph these inhabited landmarks, it’s more and more obvious how the affluent choose to manifest their affluence through architecture. They manifest it by getting or obtaining a certain piece of land—a spectacular piece of land in the spectacular west—and then by building some sort of structure there. They want to insert themselves into the most sublime location possible.

They take in the sublime, as we all would, and as I do, but then they try to project it back out again through a generally dirty and dark architectural mirror. You see it on the Snake River, with the potato barons. You see it in Colorado. You see it in ski towns. In my view, it’s just a re-projection of the American business ego—let’s just call it the American ego—back out into the landscape, via this or that villa. It’s an architectural version of wanting now to be the true authors of the landscape sublime, and part of this abrupt shift from classical, uninhabited landscapes to built landscapes of our own monumental and violent design. That’s all part of what I mean by “the inhabited west."
Across the United States, natural darkness is an endangered resource. East of the Mississippi, it is already extinct; even in the West, night sky connoisseurs admit that it's quicker to find true darkness by flying to Alice Springs, Australia, than traveling to anywhere in the Lower Forty-eight.

Ever since the nation's first electric streetlight made its debut in Cleveland, on April 29, 1879, the American night has become steadily brighter. In his new book, The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, Paul Bogard aims to draw attention to the naturally dark night as a landscape in its own right—a separate, incredibly valuable environmental condition that we overlook and destroy at our own peril.


Poster designed by Tyler Nordgren, author of Stars Above, Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks.

Venue took the opportunity to visit Bogard in his office on the campus of James Madison University, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, to learn more about nocturnal America and its dark skies—and what we have lost by dissociating the two.

Our conversation touches on the difficulty of measuring and preserving such an ephemeral quality, as well as the ecological and health consequences of endless artificial light, with speculative detours into evolutionary shifts in human vision and the possibility of preserving Las Vegas (the brightest pixel in the world in NASA photographs) as a "light pollution park."

• • •


The Bortle scale was originally published in Sky & Telescope magazine in 2001. It classifies the darkness of skies from point of view of an astronomer, ranging from 1 ("an observer's Nirvana!") to 9, in which "the only celestial objects that really provide pleasing telescopic views are the Moon, the planets, and a few of the brightest star clusters." This illustration of the scale comes via Stellarium.

Nicola Twilley: Darkness is easy to overlook, if you’ll excuse the pun. How did you go about structuring the story of such a familiar, yet intangible quality?

Paul Bogard: People think they know darkness, and that they experience darkness everyday, but they don’t, really. That’s one of the reasons I borrowed the Bortle scale for the table of contents. I think John Bortle’s point, when he created this tool for measuring the darkness of skies, was that we have no idea what darkness really is. We think night is dark—full stop, end of story. But, on the Bortle scale, cities would be a Class 9—the brightest. Most of us spend our nights in what he would call a 5 at best, or more likely a 6 or 7. We rarely, if ever, get any darker than that.

Until the coming of electric light, people experienced a darkness that Bortle would classify as 2 or 3, every night. What I tried to do in the book is to show that difference, by working my way down from places that are bright to those that are less bright, but also by talking to people who are living and working in those places.


Left: Winter constellations in a Bortle Class 4 or 5 sky. Right: The same constellation panorama in an urban, Class 8 or 9 sky. Illustrations by John Bianchi from Exploring the Night Sky by Terence Dickinson, Sky & Telescope, February 2001.

Twilley: It’s interesting that, in order to see the nuances in darkness, we need to measure and name it. It was certainly a revelation to me to read in your book that twilight has three stages—civil, nautical, and astronomical, with civil being when cars should use headlights, nautical meaning that enough stars are visible for navigational purposes, and astronomical referring to the point at which the sky is dark enough for the faintest stars to emerge. Previously, I had thought of twilight as a single condition on the light-to-dark spectrum, rather than a multiplicity.

Bogard: For sure. For me, one of the reasons why identifying different depths of darkness is so important is that we don’t recognize that we’re losing it, unless we have a name to recognize it by. It’s also a way to talk about what we might regain.

That’s also what the National Parks Service Night Sky team, who I describe in the book, is trying to do with their sky quality index. If you’re charged with preserving darkness as natural resource, unimpaired for future generations, then you need to be able to put a number on the level of darkness. You need to be able to see and measure any losses before you even know what you’re trying to protect.


A member of the Night Skies team setting up the wide-field CCD camera that the National Parks Service uses to measure light pollution, at Homestead National Monument, Nebraska.

Twilley: It’s astonishing to read the description of a Bortle Class 1, where the Milky Way is actually capable of casting shadows!

Bogard: It is. There’s a statistic that I quote, which is that eight of every ten kids born in the United States today will never experience a sky dark enough to see the Milky Way. The Milky Way becomes visible at 3 or 4 on the Bortle scale. That’s not even down to a 1. One is pretty stringent. I’ve been in some really dark places that might not have qualified as a 1, just because there was a glow of a city way off in the distance, on the horizon. You can’t have any signs of artificial light to qualify as a Bortle Class 1.

A Bortle Class 1 is so dark that it’s bright. That’s the great thing—the darker it gets, if it’s clear, the brighter the night is. That’s something we never see either, because it’s so artificially bright in all the places we live. We never see the natural light of the night sky.


New York 40º 44' 39" N 2010-10-13 LST 0:04, photo illustration by Thierry Cohen as part of the Villes Eteintes series, via The New York Times. Cohen photographs major cities at night, digitally manipulates them to remove all lights, and then inserts a starry night sky from somewhere with much less light pollution on the same latitude, to create an image that shows us what New York City or Sao Paulo would look like under the Milky Way.

Geoff Manaugh: There are a few popular urban legends about the extent to which people no longer experience true, natural darkness. One is that, even though telescopes sell really well in New York, no one has seen a star over Manhattan since 1976 or something like that. The other one, which I have to assume is also at least partially an exaggeration, is that, after the Northridge earthquake in 1994, the L.A.P.D. was flooded with worried phone calls because people were seeing all these mysterious lights in the sky—lights that turned out to be stars.

Bogard: I’ve heard that one, too—that people were seeing the Milky Way for the first time, and they didn’t know what it was.

Those stories make me think of a couple of things. While I was writing the book, I went to Florence, on the trail of Galileo, and they still have two of his four telescopes. An astronomer there had this amazing line that he told me, which was that 400 years ago, in Florence, everyone could see the stars, but only Galileo had a telescope. Now, everybody has a telescope, but nobody can see the stars.

That really speaks to that New York legend. Telescope sales continue to be good, astronomy books continue to be published, and there are sky-watching apps on your phone. People are interested in the night sky. But we can’t really see any of it.


Los Angeles 34º 06' 58" N 2012-06-15 LST 14:52, photo illustration by Thierry Cohen as part of the Villes Eteintes series, via The New York Times.

The other thing it reminds me of is a guy I met in Paris, who told me that he thinks that, for the amateur astronomer, the most important instrument is not the telescope, but the automobile, because you have to have a car to drive somewhere dark enough to see anything.

Twilley: At the start of the book, you differentiate between darkness and night. Is it just that the two are no longer synonymous, or were they ever?

Bogard: It’s a good question. They’re so obviously intertwined, but it seemed to make sense to differentiate them or to specify one or the other. Night, obviously, in many places, is no longer really dark, or at least not naturally dark. In that sense, you can’t say that night means darkness. They’re not synonymous anymore. Sometimes I think that what makes night night, what makes night special, and what I love about it, is more than darkness. It is light, whether it’s natural light, like candles, or beautiful artificial light. A lot of electric lighting is really quite beautiful now.

Artificial lighting has meant a lot of really good things, arguably. We are able to extend the day into the night, which means that we can keep working, we can pursue our hobbies, we can go out to dinner, we can entertain—we can party all night long! We can do all these things that we like to do, that night has become known for. But there are other things that we have lost through this process of nocturnalization.



Landmarks in our short history of artificial street lighting include gas lamps (these arrived in New York City in 1827, with each one having to be lit by hand), and arc-light moontowers (several cities experimented with these in the late 1800s, but Austin, Texas, is the only place to still use them today).

It’s not really my thrust in the book, but I guess what I’m saying is that, if that’s all that night is, and we have lost so many of these other qualities of night, whether it’s quiet or darkness or solitude, then I think the night that we are experiencing now is really a lessened version of what it could be.

Night has a lot of qualities beyond darkness or lack of darkness—things like nocturnal sounds and smells. Those sensory things have more to do with night, for me. I’ve always had that sense that, at night, the world reduces in size and fury and sound and we start to feel not so overrun by everything. At night, that’s how I feel—free, to pursue my writing and reading or whatever. We let go of those burdens that the day holds. Those sorts of things mean that night is much more than just darkness. Yet darkness itself has so much importance alone, too, for human health and ecological health.


This Sunforce 82156 60 LED Solar Motion Light promises "added security," "powerful detection," and "peace of mind."

Manaugh: People also assume that darkness is inherently dangerous, yet you show how the connection between light and security is often a false promise.

Bogard: Exactly. Historically, that connection is really interesting. The state really encouraged light, because officials felt as though they could control a well-lit city better. Illumination was conflated with the power of the state, going back to Louis XIV, the Sun King, who decreed that candles should be hung in the streets, to demonstrate his might by banishing dark. In the years before the French Revolution, for many Parisians, public street lighting stood for tyranny. Oil-lamp smashing was a regular thing.

Ironically, what has happened now is that we have so much light that we can no longer see. We’re blinded—sometimes literally, by the brightness and glare of our security lighting—but also metaphorically, which is to say that when we light everything up, there is really no reason to look over and notice something, and say, “Wow, that’s a weird thing.”

When everything is so brightly lit, why should we look? It’s light, so it’s safe, so we switch off. And, while no one is looking, we’ve actually made life easier for the bad guys. Some studies even show that criminals actually prefer well-lit areas. I had several policemen and security consultants tell me that criminals are as afraid of the dark as we are. They don’t want to go in the dark. The light makes them feel safe, just as it does us.


Centurion Security Lighting Kit, via.

The other thing is that, physically, so much light makes it hard for our eyes to see. We don’t adapt from bright to dark quickly, so if we look toward the light, we can’t see anything else, and then most street lighting is incredibly badly designed and actually reduces contrast.

Sure, some lighting is helpful, in terms of safety and security. But we are not safe or secure simply because of lights. We are safe and secure when we are conscious of our surroundings. Most of our security lights are a huge waste of money and energy.

It’s a difficult issue. The entire third chapter is all about safety and security. I spent a lot of time on it, because the minute you start talking about light pollution, or the importance of darkness, people’s first response is, “Yeah, but we need light for safety and security.” It touches a nerve. I would just say that we don’t need all this light for safety and security. We use way more than we need, and it isn’t making anybody any safer.


Civil Twilight Design Collective won Metropolis' Next Generation 2007 contest for their lunar-resonant streetlight system, which would brighten and dim in response to ambient lighting levels.

One thing I’d say is that our eyes are amazing organs. Given the chance to adjust to darkness, we can see quite a bit and see fairly well. I would imagine that if you got rid of wall-packs and security lights and so on, you could rely on more subtle lighting design in crosswalks, stairwells, and doorways. A couple of the lighting designers I spoke to were very excited about responsive lighting.

For example, I spoke with a woman in Boulder, Colorado, whose thing was that putting lights on poles is ridiculous, and that, instead, we should have step-lights at foot level that get triggered with a motion detector. Another guy I talked with was mapping the night geography of Paris, with the idea that you could match the lux level of street lighting to the level of activity.

Twilley: There seem to be significant disparities in the quality of different cities’ nightscapes. In the book, you engage in some comparative darkness tourism in London and Paris, and London comes across as a completely wasted opportunity, in terms of lighting.

Bogard: I thought so. I’ve noticed again and again that cities will spend all this money on making themselves pretty to draw visitors, and then they having glaring light all over the place. At night, they are as ugly as every place else.


Notre-Dame de Paris illuminated at night, by Atoma.

In Paris, the lighting is designed to make the buildings beautiful at night. In London, and really all over the United States with very few exceptions, much of the lighting is just a big light shining on a building. You can see it, sure, but it’s not really very beautiful.

Manaugh: Speaking of darkness tourism, I just noticed a book called Night Walks on the bookshelf behind you, and it reminded me of something I read about the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Apparently, Coleridge would take massive walks in the middle of the night. He would show up at Wordsworth’s house at 3 a.m., and they would head out into the Lake District together, talking and walking beneath the stars. It made me wonder if there are—such as night walking—lost practices of darkness, so to speak, through which people once pursued certain experiences defined by the absence of light.

Bogard: I have always loved the experience—wherever I’ve been living—of going out walking at night, usually at around eleven-ish. Nobody is out, for the most part. You can look through windows into people’s houses, if you want to, which is sort of like an Advent calendar thing. Everything looks a little different, somehow. It’s just quieter. My dog and I go walking at night, before we go to bed.

What’s interesting is that I love being out at night, but I’m also still somebody who’s afraid of the dark. That’s why the experience that I have in the book, being in Death Valley and just walking around in this incredible darkness over a several hour period, was a really great one, because after two or three hours, your eyes seem to shift again and you can see even more. You begin to feel much more comfortable. I’d love to do that again.

Twilley: The most astonishing statistic in the book, for me, was the fact that 40 percent of Americans live in such bright environments that their eyes never transition to night vision—from the cones to rods. I can’t help but wonder if, thanks to our saturation in artificial light, we might end up losing one of our ways of seeing the world.

Bogard: I actually asked Alan Lewis, a former head of the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America, exactly that question. He said he didn’t have any proof that our physiology was changing in response to the disappearance of darkness. Of course, it hasn’t been very long. My guess is that, if we keep going down the path of more and more artificial lighting, we would eventually lose scotopic vision—that’s the technical term for low-light vision using the eye’s rod cells.

That’s one of the things about all this light—it’s been so recent. Our grandparents and our great-grandparents grew up in a time when it was just so much darker. In the book, I’ve included the map that Fabio Falchi, the Italian I meet towards the end of the book, has made of the increase of artificial night sky brightness in North America. It shows the late 1950s, the mid-1970s, 1997, and then a prediction for 2025.


The increase in artificial night sky brightness in North America, including an extrapolated prediction for light pollution levels in 2025. Maps created by P. Cinzano, F. Falchi, and C. D. Elvidge.

I remember the 1970s. It wasn’t that long ago. And it’s significantly darker on those maps then than it is now.

Manaugh: That raises the question of historic preservation and what it means to bring darkness back. I’m reminded of architect Jorge Otero-Pailos and his experimental olfactory reconstruction of Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. He realized that, to recreate the original smell of the house, you not only had to recreate all the VOCs off-gassing from new paint and furniture, etc., but you also bring back the smell of tobacco and the smell of certain colognes that were ubiquitous at the time—an entire olfactory aesthetic, as it were, that has been lost in the subsequent years. I mention that because you can imagine that a true historic reconstruction of a 1950s suburb would require not only a totally different light level at night but, by today’s standards, a blinding sky full of stars.


Paris 48º 50' 55" N 2012-08-13 LST 22:15, photo illustration by Thierry Cohen as part of the Villes Eteintes series, via The New York Times.


Paris 48º 51' 46" N 2012-09-13 LST 2:16, photo illustration by Thierry Cohen as part of the Villes Eteintes series, via The New York Times.

Along those lines, I’d love to hear how the National Park Service’s Night Sky Team plans to go about actually protecting such an intangible resource as darkness, and maybe even reconstructing it to “original” levels. I’m also curious whether, in the other direction, you could maybe imagine a time where, thirty years from now, we might actually have a nostalgic “light pollution park.” People would pay admission to see how crazily well-lit our cities used to be.

Twilley: We could just wall off Las Vegas and declare it a light pollution sacrifice zone right now.


The Luxor beam in Las Vegas is equal to the light of more than forty billion candles.

Bogard: That is such a neat idea. I hope that, in thirty years, or perhaps even less, that would make some sense.

As you probably know, for Earth Hour every March, people turn off the lights on certain buildings. When I met with Fabio Falchi, he was trying to get his town, Mantua, to turn off the lights after midnight. He said that he went to the Leaning Tower of Pisa for Earth Hour, and he suddenly realized how magical it was to see these famous monuments with the lights off. He thought that if more people could see these places surrounded by darkness, it would be like a discovery, because no one has seen them like that in fifty years.

Of course, he said, even with the lights off, it’s not how it was, because there’s so much sky glow. There is so much cumulative light from the surroundings reflecting that you could probably never get back to what it was originally like.


Light domes from cities at various distances from Mt. Dellenbaugh, Grand Canyon Parashant National Monument, in 2007. NPS photo.

Twilley: In the book you mention that, even in Death Valley, one of the darkest places in North America, you can see the light dome of Las Vegas on the horizon, and the lights of flights heading into San Francisco above.

Bogard: Exactly. That’s the challenge of preserving darkness: you can’t do it on your own. The National Parks Service team, in addition to figuring out how to measure darkness in order to put a number to what we have to lose, figures that their best bet is education. Of course, the parks themselves have overhauled their own lighting, but they’re also starting to offer all kinds of night programs, whether it be focused on the sensory experience of the land at night or astronomical observation or whatever. If they can’t get the rest of us to care about darkness, they don’t stand a chance of preserving their own.

There are some positive signs. For example, Acadia National Park in Maine had its first Night Sky Festival in 2009, and now the local community of Bar Harbor has enacted a light ordinance to reduce their sky glow.


Poster designed by Tyler Nordgren.

That’s the National Park Service idea, essentially. Americans will come and learn about light pollution and darkness and all of the ecological and health reasons why darkness is important and endangered. Then we will go home and, hopefully, apply some of those lessons there.

I would imagine that lots of people west of the Mississippi might say, “It’s dark where I live.” But we have changed things so much that anywhere you go east of the Mississippi, there is no true darkness. It has all been tainted.

One guy on the Night Sky team told me that sometimes people will ask, “What are you going to do with the cities? You’ll never get the cities dark again—that’s just impossible. There are too many people and too many lights.” He said that, to a certain extent, that’s true. You’re probably not going to bring the Milky Way back over Manhattan or Chicago.

His reply, though, is that if you were able to just reduce the lighting in these major cities you would see great benefits. You could address a lot of the health issues that people in the cities, who are exposed to huge amounts of light at night, are suffering from.

The other thing is that, when you draw the lighting down in the cities, the darkness ripples out into the suburbs and the country. The reason the suburbs and the countryside are so bright is because of the cities. Plenty of suburbs and towns have awful lighting as well, of course, but they could fix that lighting or even turn it all off and their skies would still be bright, because of the nearest city.


A satellite view of Earth at night shows the prevalence of artificial lighting. NASA.

Twilley: To follow up on that, I’m curious about the question of legislation. Some cities, like Flagstaff, have lighting ordinances, of course. But one of the really interesting implications in your book is that, if you think about darkness as a common resource like water or clean air, we have environmental legislation and acceptable levels for pollution for them. Or, if you think about the health side, you could make the analogy with secondhand smoke and the ways in which we regulate that. At one point you mention the phrase “light trespass,” which implies we could treat darkness like property. Would any of these be effective models for preserving darkness?

Bogard: Realistically, I think we have to start with the places that are still dark, and preserve them, because, as with so many things, they are not making it anymore. The pressures are all headed in one direction. Any kind of forward-looking lighting plan that I’ve seen starts with a solid core of darkness and then works its way out from there.

In terms of legislation, in the UK, British astronomers are taking the approach of putting lighting standards into building code. That way, any new building has to have dark-sky-friendly lighting. Then lower lighting levels become more and more normal, and you don’t get that escalation effect I describe, where older buildings look dim next to new ones, and upgrade their lighting to match, and so on. People just get used to it.


Gas station in the middle of Nevada, photograph by James Reeves. "Gas stations," Bogard told us, "are the worst offenders by far. They are just egregiously bright."

Manaugh: Of course, there is potential for a huge backlash against that, at least in the United States. If you use even something as universally beneficial as vehicle emission limits in cars as an example, you see people railing against government intrusion all the time. I can easily see someone on cable news complaining, “They want to tell me when I can turn my lights on?”

Bogard: My hope is that part of that just takes time, and those voices will eventually fade away. I see this with my students. They’ve never really been asked to think about lighting and darkness, and they assume that this super-bright world in which we live today is just the way the world is. If you could shift that and, for example, make a college campus a place where you became sensitive to good lighting, then everybody would leave with at least a sense of what’s possible.

Roger Narboni, who designed the world’s first urban “lighting master plan” for the French city of Montpellier way back in the 1980s, told me that his dream is to have education about light and darkness beginning in kindergarten, as a core part of the curriculum.

Manaugh: There’s a certain poetry to having a conversation about dark sky reserves in the National Radio Quiet Zone. This is a landscape, after all, where, by federal decree, electromagnetic “pollution” has to be kept to a bare minimum.

Bogard: Wow, I didn’t know that. I had never heard of that.


The National Radio Quiet Zone boundaries, via the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

Manaugh: The regulations were put in place to protect the work of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank. The result is a 13,000-square-mile radio quarantine zone. It’s one of the few places in the United States where the air is not completely saturated by electromagnetic emissions from cell phones and power lines and radio stations and everything else.

Twilley: What’s also interesting is that people move here for that reason—people who feel that they are sensitive to electromagnetic emissions will move here for their health.

Manaugh: So, while we were driving here, we were thinking about the idea of a luxury darkness retreat, as a well-being thing.

Bogard: I can definitely imagine that. The thing I write about in the book is the question of who will have access to darkness. It’s like so many of these other things—green space, trees, quiet, and so on. It could end up being unevenly distributed; where the only way to get real darkness is to be able afford to live in a community like Aspen or Vail or somewhere like that.

This makes me think of when I was in Phoenix. I can’t remember the name of the wealthiest suburb, but what I noticed is that when you drive up towards it, all of a sudden, it’s dark. These people are rich enough to have anything they want, and they choose to have darkness at night.

Meanwhile, kids who are growing up in cities whose families don’t have the resources to travel are never going to experience that. I wonder if it will get to the point where none of us can get there, unless you’re the one percent. Then you can afford to go someplace really dark.

Twilley: It already seems as though there are huge inequalities in our exposure to light at night. I was shocked by the statistic you quote about nearly 20 percent of African-Americans in the United States working the night shift.

Bogard: And then there’s the fact that public housing is almost always over-lit in an effort to deter crime. There’s another darkness-deprived population I hadn’t considered either, before I wrote this book, which is prisoners. There’s this former convict, Ken Lamberton, who wrote about his time in prison and the way he was forced to be in the light—he wasn’t even allowed to cover his face with a blanket at night. It’s as if being constantly illuminated was actually part of his punishment.


Hallway lighting in a supermax prison is never switched off. Photograph via.

One thing that appeals to me about light a lot is how symbolic it is. Our usage of light right now is hugely symbolic of our lack of awareness of how we use things and the way we use so much more of everything than we need. It seems to me that if we could control our light use and use light more intelligently, then it could also be symbolic of us finally getting our act together in a lot of different ways.



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.
Screenshot of our own SimCity (called, for reasons that made sense at the time, We Are The Champignons) after three hours of game play.

In the nearly quarter-century since designer Will Wright launched the iconic urban planning computer game, SimCity, not only has the world's population become majoritatively urban for the first time in human history, but interest in cities and their design has gone mainstream.

Once a byword for boring, city planning is now a hot topic, claimed by technology companies, economists, so-called "Supermayors," and cultural institutions alike as the key to humanity's future. Indeed, if we are to believe the hype, the city has become our species' greatest triumph.

A shot from photographer Michael Wolf's extraordinary Architecture of Density series, newly available in hardcover.

In March 2013, the first new iteration of SimCity in a decade was launched, amidst a flurry of critical praise mingled with fan disappointment at Electronic Arts' "always-online" digital rights management policy and repeated server failures.

A few weeks before the launch, Venue had the opportunity to play the new SimCity at its Manhattan premiere, during which time we feverishly laid out curving roads and parks, drilled for oil while installing a token wind turbine, and tried to ignore our city's residents'—known as Sims—complaints as their homes burned before we could afford to build a fire station.



We emerged three hours later, blinking and dazed, into the gleaming white and purple lights of Times Square, and were immediately struck by the abstractions required to translate such a complex, dynamic environment into a coherent game structure, and the assumptions and values embedded in that translation.

Fortunately, the game's lead designer, Stone Librande, was happy to talk with us further about his research and decision-making process, as well as some of the ways in which real-world players have already surprised him. We spoke to him both in person and by telephone, and our conversation appears below.

• • •



Nicola Twilley: I thought I’d start by asking what sorts of sources you used to get ideas for SimCity, whether it be reading books, interviewing urban experts, or visiting different cities?

Stone Librande: From working on SimCity games in the past, we already have a library here with a lot of city planning books. Those were really good as a reference, but I found, personally, that the thing I was most attracted to was using Google Earth and Google Street View to go anywhere in the world and look down on real cities. I found it to be an extremely powerful way to understand the differences between cities and small towns in different regions.

Google has a tool in there that you can use to measure out how big things are. When I first started out, I used that a lot to investigate different cities. I’d bring up San Francisco and measure the parks and the streets, and then I’d go to my home town and measure it, to figure out how it differed and so on. My inspiration wasn’t really drawn from urban planning books; it was more from deconstructing the existing world.

Then I also really got into Netflix streaming documentaries. There is just so much good stuff there, and Netflix is good at suggesting things. That opened up a whole series of documentaries that I would watch almost every night after dinner. There were videos on water problems, oil problems, the food industry, manufacturing, sewage systems, and on and on—all sorts of things. Those covered a lot of different territory and were really enlightening to me.



Geoff Manaugh: While you were making those measurements of different real-world cities, did you discover any surprising patterns or spatial relationships?

Librande: Yes, definitely. I think the biggest one was the parking lots. When I started measuring out our local grocery store, which I don’t think of as being that big, I was blown away by how much more space was parking lot rather than actual store. That was kind of a problem, because we were originally just going to model real cities, but we quickly realized there were way too many parking lots in the real world and that our game was going to be really boring if it was proportional in terms of parking lots.

Manaugh: You would be making SimParkingLot, rather than SimCity.

Librande: [laughs] Exactly. So what we do in the game is that we just imagine they are underground. We do have parking lots in the game, and we do try to scale them—so, if you have a little grocery store, we’ll put six or seven parking spots on the side, and, if you have a big convention center or a big pro stadium, they’ll have what seem like really big lots—but they’re nowhere near what a real grocery store or pro stadium would have. We had to do the best we could do and still make the game look attractive.


Using the zoning tool for the city designed by We Are the Champignons.

Twilley: I’d love to hear more about the design process and how you went about testing different iterations. Did you storyboard narratives for possible cities and urban forms that you might want to include in the game?

Librande: The way the game is set up, it’s kind of infinite. What I mean by that is that you could play it so many different ways that it’s basically impossible to storyboard or have a defined set of narratives for how the player will play it.


Stone Librande's storyboards for "Green City" and "Mining City" at the start of play.

Instead, what I did was that I came up with two extreme cases—around the office we call them “Berkeley” and “Pittsburgh,” or “Green City” and “Dirty City.” We said, if you are the kind of player who wants to make utopia—a city with wind power, solar power, lots of education and culture, and everything’s beautiful and green and low density—then this would be the path you would take in our game.

But then we made a parallel path for a really greedy player who just wants to make as much money as possible, and is just exploiting or even torturing their Sims. In that scenario, you’re not educating them; you’re just using them as slave labor to make money for your city. You put coal power plants in, you put dumps everywhere, and you don’t care about their health.


Stone Librande's storyboard for "Green City" at mid-game.

I made a series of panels, showing those two cities from beginning to late stage, where everything falls apart. Then, later on, when we got to multiplayer, I joined those two diagrams together and said, “If both of these cities start working together, then they can actually solve each other’s problems.”

The idea was to set them up like bookends—these are the extremes of our game. A real player will do a thousand things that fall somewhere in between those extremes and create all sorts of weird combinations. We can’t predict all of that.

Basically, we figured that if we set the bookends, then we would at least understand the boundaries of what kind of art we need to build, and what kind of game play experiences we need to design for.


Stone Librande's storyboard for "Mining City" at mid-game.

Twilley: In going through that process, did you discover things that you needed to change to make game play more gripping for either the dirty city or the clean city?

Librande: It was pretty straightforward to look at Pittsburgh, the dirty city, and understand why it was going to fail, but you have to try to understand why the clean one might fail, as well. If you have one city—one path—that always fails, and one that always succeeds, in a video game, that’s really bad design. Each path has to have its own unique problems.

What happened was that we just started to look at the two diagrams side-by-side, and we knew all the systems we wanted to support in our game—things like power, utilities, wealth levels, population numbers, and all that kind of stuff—and we basically divided them up.

We literally said: “Let’s put all of this on this side over in Pittsburgh and the rest of it over onto Berkeley.” That’s why, at the very end, when they join together, they are able to solve each other’s problems because, between the two of them, they have all the problems but they also have all the answers.


Stone Librande's storyboard for the "Green City" and "Mining City" end-game symbiosis.

Twilley: One thing that struck me, after playing, was that you do incorporate a lot of different and complex systems in the game, both physical ones like water, and more abstract ones, like the economy. But—and this seems particularly surprising, given that one of your bookend cities was nicknamed Berkeley—the food system doesn’t come into the game at all. Why not?

Librande: Food isn’t in the game, but it’s not that we didn’t think about it—it just became a scoping issue. The early design actually did call for agriculture and food systems, but, as part of the natural process of creating a video game, or any situation where you have deadlines and budgets that you have to meet, we had to make the decision that it was going to be one of the things that the Sims take care of on their own, and that the Mayor—that is, the player—has nothing to do with it.

I watched some amazing food system documentaries, though, so it was really kind of sad to not include any of that in the game.


Data layer showing ore deposits.


Data layer showing happiness levels. In SimCity, happiness is increased by wealth, good road connections, and public safety, and decreased by traffic jams and pollution.

Manaugh: Now that the game is out in the world, and because of the central, online hosting of all the games being played right now, I have to imagine that you are building up an incredible archive of all the decisions that different players have made and all the different kind of cities that people have built. I’m curious as to what you might be able to make or do with that kind of information. Are you mining it to see what kinds of mistakes people routinely make, or what sorts of urban forms are most popular? If so, is the audience for that information only in-house, for developing future versions of SimCity, or could you imagine sharing it with urban planners or real-life Mayors to offer an insight into popular urbanism?

Librande: It’s an interesting question. It’s hard to answer easily, though, because there are so many different ways players can play the game. The game was designed to cover as many different play patterns as we could think of, because our goal was to try to entertain as many of the different player demographics as we could.

So, there are what we call “hardcore players.” Primarily, they want to compete, so we give them leader boards and we give them incentives to show they are “better” than somebody else. We might say: “There’s a competition to have the most people in your city.” And they are just going to do whatever it takes to cram as many people into a city as possible, to show that they can win. Or there might be a competition to get the most rich people in your city, which requires a different strategy than just having the most people. It’s hard to keep rich people in a city.

Each of those leader boards, and each of those challenges, will start to skew those hardcore people to play in different ways. We are putting the carrot out there and saying: “Hey, play this way and see how well you can do.” So, in that case, we are kind of tainting the data, because we are giving them a particular direction to go in and a particular goal.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are the “creative players” who are not trying to win—they are trying to tell a story. They are just trying to create something beautiful. For instance, when my wife plays, she wants lots of schools and parks and she’s not at all concerned with trying to make the most money or have the most people. She just wants to build that idealized little town that she thinks would be the perfect place to live.


A regional view of a SimCity game, showing different cities and their painfully small footprints.

So, getting back to your question, because player types cover such a big spectrum, it’s really hard for us to look at the raw data and pull out things like: “This is the kind of place that people want to live in.” That said, we do have a lot of data and we can look at it and see things, like how many people put down a park and how many people put in a tram system. We can measure those things in the aggregate, but I don’t think they would say much about real city planning.

Twilley: Building on that idea of different sorts of players and ways of playing, are there a variety of ways of “winning” at SimCity? Have you personally built cities that you would define as particularly successful within the game, and, if so, what made them “winners”?

Librande: For sure, there is no way to win at SimCity other then what you decide to put into the game. If you come in with a certain goal in mind—perhaps, say, that you want a high approval rating and everyone should be happy all the time— then you would play very differently than if you went in wanting to make a million dollars or have a city with a million people in it.

As far as my personal city planning goes, it has varied. I’ve played the game so much, because early on I just had to play every system at least once to understand it. I tried to build a power city, a casino city, a mining city—I tried to build one of everything.

Now that I’m done with that phase, and I’m just playing for fun at home, I’ve learned that I enjoy mid-density cities much more then high-density cities. To me, high-density cities are just a nightmare to run and operate. I don’t want to be the mayor of New York; I want to be the mayor of a small town. The job is a lot easier!

Basically, I build in such a way as to not make skyscrapers. At the most, I might have just one or two because they look cool—but that’s it.


Screenshot from SimCity 4.

Manaugh: I’m curious how you dealt with previous versions of SimCity, and whether there was any anxiety about following that legacy or changing things. What are the major innovations or changes in this version of the game, and what kinds of things did you think were too iconic to get rid of?

Librande: First of all, when we started the project, and there were just a few people on the team, we all agreed that we didn’t want this game to be called SimCity 5. We just wanted to call it SimCity, because if we had a 5 on the box, everybody would think it had to be SimCity 4 with more stuff thrown in. That had the potential to be quite alienating, because SimCity 4 was already too complicated for a lot of people. That was the feedback we had gotten.

Once we made that title decision, it was very liberating—we felt like, “OK, now we can reimagine what the brand might be and how cities are built, almost from scratch.”

Technically, the big difference is the “GlassBox” engine that we have, in which all the agents promote a bottom-up simulation. All the previous SimCity games were literally built on spreadsheets where you would type a number into a grid cell, and then it propagated out into adjacent grid cells, and the whole city was a formula.

SimCity 4 was literally prototyped in Excel. There were no graphics—it was just a bunch of numbers—but you could type a code that represented a particular type of building and the formulae built into the spreadsheet would then decide how much power it had and how many people would work there. It just statically calculated the city as if it were a bunch of snapshots.


A fire breaks out in the city designed by We Are The Champignons.

Because our SimCity—the new SimCity—is really about getting these agents to move around, it’s much more about flows. Things have to be in motion. I can’t look at anybody’s city as a screenshot and tell you what’s going on; I have to see it live and moving before I can fully understand if your roads are OK, if your power is flowing, if your water is flowing, if your sewage is getting dumped out, if your garbage is getting picked up, and so on. All that stuff depends on trucks actually getting to the garbage cans, for example, and there’s no way to tell that through a snapshot.


Sims queue for the bus at dawn.

Once we made that decision—to go with an agent-driven simulation and make it work from the bottom up—then all the design has to work around that. The largest part of the design work was to say: “Now that we know agents are going to run this, how do schools work with those agents? How do fire and police systems work with these agents? How do time systems work?” All the previous editions of SimCity never had to deal with that question—they could just make a little table of crimes per capita and run those equations.

Manaugh: When you turned things over to the agents, did that have any kind of spatial effect on game play that you weren’t expecting?

Librande: It had an effect, but it was one that we were expecting. Because everything has to be in motion, we had to have good calculations about how distance and time are tied together. We had to do a lot of measurements about how long it would really take for one guy to walk from one side of the city to the other, in real time, and then what that should be in game time—including how fast the cars needed to move in relationship to the people walking in order to make it look right, compared to how fast would they really be moving, both in game time and real time. We had all these issues where the cars would be moving at eighty miles an hour in real time, but they looked really slow in the game, or where the people were walking way, way too fast, but actually they were only walking at two miles an hour.

We knew this would happen, but we just had to tweak the real-life metrics so that the motion and flow look real in the game. We worked with the animators, and followed our intuition, and tried to mimic the motion and flow of crowds.


We Are The Champignons' industrial zone, carefully positioned downwind of the residential areas.

In the end, it’s not one hundred percent based on real-life metrics; it just has to look like real life, and that’s true throughout the game. For example, if we made the airport runways actual size, they would cover up the entire city. Those are the kinds of things where we just had to make a compromise and hope that it looked good.

Twilley: Actually, one of the questions we wanted to ask was about time in the game. I found it quite intriguing that there are different speeds that you can choose to play at, but then there’s also a distinct sense of the phases of building a city and how many days and nights have to pass for certain changes to occur. Did you do any research into how fast cities change and even how the pace of city life is different in different places?

Librande: We found an amazing article about walking speeds in different cities. That was something I found really interesting. In cities like New York, people walk faster, and in medium-sized or small towns, they walk a lot slower. At one point, we had Sims walking faster as the city gets bigger, but we didn’t take it that far in the final version.



I know what you are talking about, though: in the game, bigger cities feel a lot busier and faster moving. But there’s nothing really built into the game to do that; it’s just the cumulative effect of more moving parts, I guess. In kind of a counter-intuitive way, when you start getting big traffic jams, it feels like a bigger, busier city even though nothing is moving—it’s just to do with the way we imagine rush-hour gridlock as being a characteristic of a really big city.

The fact that there’s even a real rush hour shows how important timing is for an agent-based game. We spent a lot of time trying to make the game clock tick, to pull you forward into the experience. In previous SimCities, the day/night cycle was just a graphical effect—you could actually turn it off if you didn’t like it, and it had no effect on the simulation. In our game, there is a rush hour in the morning and one at night, there are school hours, and there are shopping hours. Factories are open twenty-four hours a day, but stores close down at night, so different agents are all working on different schedules.



The result is that you end up getting really interesting cycles—these flows of Sims build up at certain times and then the buses and streets are empty and then they build back up again. There’s something really hypnotic about that when you play the game. I find myself not doing anything but just watching in this mesmerized state—almost hypnotized—where I just want to watch people drive and move around in these flows. At that point, you’re not looking at any one person; you’re looking at the aggregate of them all. It’s like watching waves flow back and forth like on a beach.

For me, that’s one of the most compelling aspects of our game. The timing just pulls you forward. We hear this all the time—people will say, “I sat down to play, and three hours had passed, and I thought, wait, how did that happen?” Part of that is the flow that comes from focusing, but another part of it is the success of our game in pulling you into its time frame and away from the real-world time frame of your desk.



Twilley: Has anything about the way people play or respond to the game surprised you? Is there anything that you already want to change?

Librande: One thing that amazed me is that, even with the issues at the launch, we had the equivalent of nine hundred man-years put into SimCity in less than a week.

Most of the stuff that people are doing, we had hoped or predicted would happen. For example, I anticipated a lot of the story-telling and a lot of the creativity—people making movies in the cities, and so on—and we’re already seeing that. YouTube is already filled with how-to videos and people putting up all these filters, like film noir cities, and it’s just really beautiful.


Screen shot from SimCity player Calvin Chan's film noir montage of his city at night.

The thing I didn’t predict was that, in the first week, two StarCraft players—that’s a very fast-paced space action game, in case you’re not familiar with it, and it’s fairly common for hardcore players to stream their StarCraft battles out to a big audience—decided to have a live-streamed SimCity battle against each other. They were in a race to be the first to a population of 100,000; they live-streamed their game; and there were twenty thousand people in the chat room, cheering them on and typing in advice—things like “No, don’t build there!” and “ What are you doing—why are you putting down street cars?” and “Come on, dude, turn your oil up!” It was like that, nonstop, for three hours. It was like a spectator sport, with twenty thousand people cheering their favorite on, and, basically, backseat city planning. That really took me by surprise.

I’m not sure where we are going to go with that, though, because we’re not really an eSport, but it seems like the game has the ability to pull that out of people. I started to try to analyze what’s going on there, and it seems that if you watch people play StarCraft and you don’t know a lot about it, your response is going to be something like, “I don’t know what I’m looking at; I don’t know if I should be cheering now; and I don’t know if what I just saw was exciting or not.”

But, if you watch someone build a city, you just know. I mean, I don’t have to teach you that putting a garbage dump next to people’s houses is going to piss them off or that you need to dump sewage somewhere. I think the reason that the audience got so into it is that everyone intuitively knows the rules of the game when it comes to cities.

Water Pipe, Running from Central Arizona Project to Pleasant Valley Development, Phoenix, Arizona (2009). Photograph by Peter Arnold, originally published on Design Observer as part of "Drylands: Water and the West," an essay by Peter and Hadley Arnold of the Arid Lands Institute, whose work focuses on the challenge of drylands design.

Aridity is the defining condition of large parts of the American West. As the first white explorer of the Colorado River, John Wesley Powell, presciently warned the attendees of a 1893 irrigation congress, there is simply not enough water to go around:

I tell you, gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply these lands.

However, Americans—or, at least, those in positions of power—were unwilling to forego the nation's "Manifest Destiny," and, over the subsequent century and beyond, through to the present day, the arid regions of the West have been "reclaimed" through a series of dams, diversions, and irrigation projects, while the region's limited water has proved endless only in terms of its ability to generate legal fees.

Powell's own prescription, presented in his 1878 Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, proposed organizing the government of the region by watershed, rather than state, with citizens of each "drainage district" responsible for administering the resource as a communal property.


John Wesley Powell’s 1890 map of the "Arid Region of the United States, showing Drainage Districts,” published in the Eleventh Annual Report of the U.S. Geological Survey. If Congress had followed Powell's recommendations, the governance units of the West would have followed these hydrological boundaries instead of state lines. Via the Aqueous Advisor's blog, where a larger PDF version is available.

Instead, the application of a structure of individual property ownership and states' rights onto a dynamic hydrological system has led to a complex, and seemingly unsustainable, system of water management.

Nevada, home of Venue's parent institution, the Nevada Museum of Art, provides a particularly fascinating series of examples of the ways in which bureaucratic fictions of water rights and allocations articulate a physical reality of endangered Lahontan cutthroat fisheries, controversial inter-basin transfer pipes, and dangerously low reservoirs.


The white "bathtub ring" visible in this panorama of Lake Mead (taken by Kumar Appaiah) shows its lowered level. According to some estimates, the reservoir could drop below the minimum power pool elevation of 1,050 feet as early as 2017.

Curious to understand what the West's water looks like from a legal perspective, as well as to learn why Reno's Truckee River is the most litigated body of water in America, Venue stopped by the office of attorney Ross de Lipkau, author of The Nevada Law of Water Rights, for a quick chat.

Our conversation sheds light on the origins of Western water law in mining claims, the ebb and flow of the water rights market, and alternative water management systems—a vital context for understanding the region's hydrological history, as well as for re-imagining its future.

• • •



Geoff Manaugh: To begin with, I’m curious how you define the users or the constituency of a body of water—and, along those lines, how a body of water itself is defined.

Ross de Lipkau: Today, the jurisdiction of Nevada water is handled strictly by the Nevada State Engineer. The State Engineer has jurisdiction of all waters in Nevada, with the exception being the Colorado River, which comes through Nevada at the southern tip.

Nevada’s water law was first enacted in 1905. Prior to that time, you did it just like the old miners did. When Nevada was settled, homesteaders were basically trespassers upon federal lands who would simply divert water from a creek to irrigate the land they’d taken. In 1866, Congress came out with probably the most important land law of its time. What that law did was affirm and, in essence, bless the activities that had taken place previously. That meant that the mining claims were fine, and the ditches dug by the farmers across federal lands to their irrigated lands were fine, and, with that blessing, that behavior continued.

In Nevada, you simply diverted water from a creek or source and irrigated your lands, no questions asked.


Hydraulic mining near French Corral, Nevada County (c.1866), Lawrence & Houseworth (publisher), Library of Congress.

There were some cases prior to 1905, but they also affirmed prior appropriation. In 1905, Nevada water law came into effect, and what it says, in part, is that all those rights placed to beneficial use prior to the adoption of the water law are fine, but that after 1905, all water rights have to be filed and approved by the Nevada State Engineer.

The result is that we have what I call a dual system: the permitted water rights from post-1905, and, prior to that, what are called vested water rights.

Nicola Twilley: Are the vested water rights all recorded somewhere?

de Lipkau: They’re recorded in the State Engineer’s Office.

Twilley: So people who had diverted water for their own use prior to 1905 had to visit the Engineer, to make sure it was written down.

de Lipkau: Correct. We frequently go to the State Engineer’s Office in Carson City to check his official records. They’re on the computer, but we’d rather see the hard copies when it’s important.

Twilley: Do people ever come along with a water right that they say is vested but didn’t get written down at the time?

de Lipkau: Yes, that happens all the time. In that case, you file a claim of vested right. Then the State Engineer may have a hearing; it may end up in court. Two or more people arguing over and claiming the same water source is a very frequent problem in Nevada.

Manaugh: We’re interested in talking about some of the landmark cases in water rights law. For example, I’m thinking about the ongoing discussion about diverting water from northern Nevada down to the south to help out with Las Vegas and Lake Mead—is that something you’re involved with?

de Lipkau: I used to be involved. What is happening in Las Vegas is a result of that city’s huge growth spurt. Nevada was originally allocated 300,000 acre-feet from the Colorado River in the United States Supreme Court decision that adjudicated the waters of the Colorado between the different states. In that decision, the Lower Basin states received 7.5 million acre-feet and the Upper Basin received the same, which is fine except that there aren’t 14 million acre-feet flowing in the river. The adjudication was based on 1920 records and those just aren’t accurate to today’s reality.


A graph of historical and projected supply and demand on the waters of the Colorado River Basin published by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in December 2012.

In any case, Nevada receives 300,000 acre-feet from the Colorado River, plus ground water in the Las Vegas basin, which is in the magnitude of 35,000 acre-feet. The water management team of Las Vegas, which I think a great deal of, said that, because of this growth spurt that took place in the late 80s and early 90s, we need more water. So the water district filed under state law—enacted in 1905, as I mentioned, and substantially amended in 1913—a total of 126 applications to appropriate water in three different counties, and in different groundwater basins. There are 254 groundwater basins in Nevada, and they filed in something like twenty of them. They’ve subsequently dropped some of the applications because they were perhaps leading to an environmental situation, or they involved a federal wildlife preserve, or things like that.


Map showing the South Nevada Water Authority proposed pipeline, pumping water from northern Nevada groundwater basins to supply Las Vegas. The Governor of Utah rejected the proposal in April 2013, casting a yet another question mark over the entire project. Map via KCSG TV.

At this point, the State Engineer has granted a series of applications in White Pine County, which is several hundred miles north of Las Vegas. Las Vegas is now in the process of permitting the right of way to bring the pipeline to the city, to commingle the waters with the Colorado River waters and their groundwater sources. The county won’t get any return flow.

Twilley: So some of this water from a different basin will end up joining the Colorado?

de Lipkau: Yes, a certain percentage of the water delivered by the water district goes back into the river via the sanitary waste system. The state of Nevada gets credit for that. So, for example, if they pump 100,000 acre-feet out in any given year, a certain percent—I think it’s fifty-eight—of that goes back and can be repumped. So the 300,000 acre-feet expands, and is actually 480,000 acre feet.

Twilley: I see: the better you are at returning it, the more you can pump.

de Lipkau: Correct. The less outdoor use, the better. That’s why, if you’ve been to Las Vegas, you’ll know there are brand new and even twenty-year-old subdivisions that have no lawns. They call it native landscaping. Lots of rocks, a few bushes and a couple of trees—and that’s it.

In those cases, virtually all of the water is used in the house, and virtually all of the water that is used in the house returns through the sanitary system.


Xeriscaping on the campus of the University of Las Vegas, Nevada; photo by Andrew Alden.

Manaugh: What’s on the horizon? Are there any larger legislative changes that might affect water rights, or any major new developments in Nevada that might cause water rights conflicts?

de Lipkau: I would say no. What happens, for the most part, for new developments, is that you have to renegotiate existing water rights. In Reno, for example, the State Engineer stopped granting groundwater permits in 1975. In order to get water for development, you have to transfer existing rights to a new use. So, if someone wanted to built a 100-unit condominium on that vacant lot out there, they would have to acquire and buy enough water to serve that size of condo, and then they would have to dedicate and give that volume of water to the water purveyor, which is the local water company. That’s how they do it here.

Twilley: Where would they buy that water from?

de Lipkau: They’d likely have to buy it from a farmer. There’s an open market for water rights.

Twilley: Any farmer?

de Lipkau: It’s got to be in the same valley. It can be a pretty competitive market. During the heyday, in 2004—and this will shock you—an acre-foot would go for upwards of $25,000. It could go as high, in an extreme case, as $50,000.

Twilley: The farmers were sitting on a goldmine.


Irrigated farmland in Nevada; photo via a realtor who specializes in transactions involving ranch water rights.

de Lipkau: Yes, they were. Now, it’s more like $6,000, maybe even $5,000. It’s gone down by eighty-five to ninety percent. There’s no market because there’s no development. There are still some mining companies that have had to buy farms to transfer the water to their mining operations, but the market has gone way down.

Now, to give you some context, one acre-foot would probably serve two houses annually. I have a water meter, so I know that I use about half an acre-foot a year. Actually, during the winter, the water meter reads about one hundred gallons a day with just my wife and I—and I have no idea where that goes. During the summer, when you’re outdoors watering—and I don’t have a big lawn or anything—you use a heck of a lot more.

The basic premise in Nevada water law is when the State Engineer sees an application, he’s required to deny it if one of three things is true. He has to deny it if there’s no un-appropriated water in the proposed source supplying the water. In this watershed—Truckee Meadows—all the groundwater is already taken, so he will deny it on that ground. That’s why new development relies on transfers. The other ground for denial is based on whether the granting of the application will tend to impair the value of the existing rights. What that means is that you can’t give permission for a well too close to another well. “Too close” is an engineering call by the State Engineer based on hydrology and the cone of depression. When a well pumps water, it creates a cone of depression as the water above it drains to the pump. If you have too many wells too close together, these cones of depression will overlap and the water level will go down.

The third ground for denial is whether the granting of the application would tend to be detrimental to the public interest, which is pretty much undefined. That third reason, in itself, is very, very seldom used as the sole grounds to deny an application—I can think of maybe three examples in this state.


A rain chart of the United States showing areas with more than twenty inches of rain per year (the minimum required for non-irrigated agricultre) in varying shades of grey, and those with less than twenty in white. From John Wesley Powell's 1878 Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States. Via the University of Alabama.

Twilley: Are there any changes you would like to see in Nevada’s water law?

de Lipkau: I’d like to undo some statutes. The legislature sometimes attempts to add to the water law without an understanding of what the effect is. These new statutes look pretty innocuous on their face, but they are a huge detriment to the intended water user. For example, there’s one new statute that says when you have a trans-basin diversion, meaning that you are planning to move water from one basin to the other, if the amount being moved is more than 250 acre-feet, you have to prepare—or pay for the State Engineer to prepare—an inventory of the basin from which the water comes.

It’s kind of a make-work deal. One little tiny town in Nevada got caught up in that statute, and they’re dead in the water. The State Engineer doesn’t have the staff to go out and prepare this study. It’s happened to mining companies, but they have the $100,000 or $250,000 to prepare this inventory that nobody looks at. It’s supposed to be a snapshot in time, but if the snapshot in time is from the first week in June, and the springs are flowing, it bears no relation if you do it during the last week in January.

Twilley: What was the motivation behind that legislation?

de Lipkau: It was political. I sarcastically say sometimes that the legislature wants to make water when water is not there, because their constituents or their corporate supporters are complaining that the State Engineer won’t grant any permits. Special legislation is sometimes made in an attempt to make him have to grant permits. Or, if there’s a project that people want stopped, like the Las Vegas Water Importation Program, then it’s a case of throwing up as many legislative roadblocks as we can.

That’s the kind of stuff I’d like to see eliminated. I’d like to get back to what it was thirty years ago. It would be a lot less political, which would streamline the process and make it easier for the applicant.

Then there’s another statute that I personally don’t care for, which is that’s anybody can file a protest to any application. For example, I can personally file a protest against the next application filed in Elko County, which is three hundred miles away, just because.

Twilley: So any Nevadan can protest any application made in the state?

de Lipkau: No, no—anyone can protest. You can file. It doesn’t make any sense. In my mind, the only reason to protest that application in Elko would be if it’s going to hurt my water right. But it doesn’t have to hurt my water right—I can protest it if I just don’t like it. If I don’t like farming or I don’t like mining or I don’t like development, I can protest, and that will bog up everything for six months or a couple years, and then I can appeal it to the district court, too.

Manaugh: So, in your mind, a protest should only be filed by people who actually have water rights in the same basin?

de Lipkau: Correct. A protest should be filed by someone who has a legitimate standing, to put it in legal terminology.


A detail showing Reno from John Wesley Powell’s 1890 map of the "Arid Region of the United States, showing Drainage Districts,” published in the Eleventh Annual Report of the U.S. Geological Survey. Via the Aqueous Advisor's blog, where a larger PDF version is available.

Manaugh: Given the scarcity of water in the American West in general, and thus the potential for future conflict, we’d love to get your thoughts on John Wesley Powell’s proposal for governing the American West according to drainage basins. Do you think that Powell’s proposal has merit?

de Lipkau: I do. Aligning the boundaries of governance units—say, states—with hydrologic units makes a great deal of sense to facilitate coherent management policies. Having a state line go through the middle of an agricultural area that is irrigated from a single drainage basin is a recipe for dispute.

As an example, take the border between California and Nevada, which was finally decreed by the Supreme Court in 1980 after more than a hundred years of conflict, sometimes physical as well as legal. Much of the ongoing contention over the management of Lake Tahoe and the source of the Truckee River could have been avoided if that boundary had followed the Sierra crest line rather than following the 120th meridian right through the middle of Lake Tahoe, as the territory—then State—of Nevada originally proposed.

So I think Powell’s proposal has a great deal of merit—although it might well have resulted in less work for me.


The congressional acts that created the Nevada Territory in 1861, and then the State of Nevada in 1864, provided for a hydrological western boundary at the Sierra Nevada crest line—if the California state legislature would agree to change its existing boundary from 120 degrees longitude. California declined, leading to a variety of interstate water rights issues that persist to this day. Maps via this Tahoe Nuggets article on the California-Nevada border war, originally published in Professional Surveyor, January 2002.

Twilley: Finally, I’m curious about something I was told at Venue’s launch party, which is that Reno’s Truckee River is the most litigated river in America. Is that true? And, if so, why?

de Lipkau: I’d say the answer is yes. An adjudication is the judicial means of determining the relative rights to all the waters of a stream or river system. The Truckee River Adjudication Suit was first filed by the United States in the teens. It was a federal action because the Truckee is an interstate stream, meaning it starts in California, at Lake Tahoe, and it ends in Nevada, at Pyramid Lake.

I’ll give you the short version. In 1926, an injunction was granted and the parties followed the injunction and were bound by the injunction until 1944, when the final decision or decree was issued by the United States Federal District Court. The decree allocated all of the waters of the Truckee River to the farmers in the Truckee Meadows valley, to the Sierra Pacific Power Company, which supplied Reno and Sparks, and to irrigate the Newlands Project.

That was the country’s first reclamation project, and it came out of a piece of legislation authored by Senator Newlands in 1902, which authorized the construction of Derby Dam on the Truckee. The dam split the waters at that point, with a portion going to irrigate the farmland near Fallon, under the control of the Truckee Carson Irrigation District, and the balance going to Pyramid Lake.


Derby Dam, twenty miles east of Reno on the Truckee River, was the first project of the brand new U.S. Reclamation Service (today’s Bureau of Reclamation), organized under the Reclamation Act of 1902, which committed the Federal Government to construct the hydraulic infrastructure necessary to irrigate the West. Photo via UNR.

In the 1944 decree, which is called the Orr Ditch Decree, the Pyramid Lake tribe was given approximately 30,000 acres’ worth of water. The Pyramid Lake Reservation was set aside by the president in 1859. Therefore, they had the highest priority on the system.

What has happened over the years is that the tribe wants more water. They want the waters of Pyramid Lake maintained as a fishery, and there has been constant litigation since about 1968. It eventually went all the way to the United States Supreme Court in U.S.A. vs. Nevada. In 1983, the Supreme Court said that the Indians were out of luck and that their rights were fully determined in the Orr Ditch Decree—the litigation that was final in 1944. Ever since then, the tribe has been bringing various actions to put more water in Pyramid Lake and lessen the diversion of water by others, mostly the Truckee Carson Irrigation District.

I suppose the end result that the tribe wants is that the diversion of the Derby Dam be shut down, and all the waters of the Truckee River that are not used upstream left to flow into Pyramid Lake for a fishery.

Twilley: When the original adjudication was determined, why wasn’t the fishery allocated an adequate supply?

de Lipkau: Because, at that time, the fishery was not important. In 1902, in the era of the Newlands Act, farming and opening up the west to agriculture was the primary concern of Congress. At that point, more than one hundred years ago, converting sagebrush lands to productive farmlands was considered to be in the public interest.

Now, people argue that it’s not—that farming is not so good and that the water is better used for environmental and fishery purposes. Pyramid Lake is the end or terminus of the Truckee River. It’s a dead lake, in other words, and the salinity is rising because there’s no outlet and there’s no way to freshen it up. So, through evaporation, water escapes into the atmosphere, and the solids—the salts—stay in there.


Timothy O’Sullivan, "Rock Formations, Pyramid Lake, Nevada," 1867. Collection of the Nevada Museum of Art, The Altered Landscape, Carol Franc Buck Collection.


Mark Klett, "Rephotographic Survey Project, Pyramid Isle, Pyramid Lake, Nevada (Site #79-33)," 1979/1984–85. Collection of the Nevada Museum of Art, The Altered Landscape, Carol Franc Buck Collection.

Twilley: When you go through this adjudication process and determine the relative rights of different users to water, is the law written in such a way as to account for the fact that people’s priorities will shift over time?

de Lipkau: As far as changes in uses and their perceived benefits over time, the Truckee River Decree expressly authorizes changes pursuant to law. The language is there to say that the existing law and the existing water right is always subject to change in conformity to future legal determination, and that is true of any legitimate water legislation in Nevada.

Priority, on the other hand, does not shift. The water law follows the mining law. We all know how priority works in mining from our eighth grade civics classes on the California Gold Rush in the 1840s. We learned then, and I relearned much later, that the first person to stake a claim has priority on that mineral resource.

The first water rights case came out of California in 1855. It had to do with miners diverting water out of small creeks to wash the gold out of the rock in sluice boxes. The California Supreme Court said, with no legal authority, that the way to make it fair and to make it work was priority appropriation. That means that the first person who diverted water from the creek had the first priority. The second person who diverted water from the creek had the second priority, and so on. In times of shortage, the last priority cuts off completely, then the next to last, and so on, till the first appropriator—the earliest priority—gets it all. And priority doesn’t change.

Nevada came along in 1866 and affirmed that decision, and so priority of appropriation is also the basis of Nevada’s water law.

Now, a system in which all the users are forced to cut back by a certain percentage is called correlative rights. But that’s not the case here; with the Truckee, it’s strict priority.



 
  Getting more posts...