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Week 6 - The life and times of rocks

Basalt igneous rock (commonly used as aggregate in concrete) at Five Islands ParkBasalt igneous rock (commonly used as aggregate in concrete) at Five Islands Park

Hello!

We’re nearing the end of summer, and my class has wrapped up this past week. In this log I’m sharing the last two field trips we went on: to a DIY concrete-everything house, a human-scale camera obscura, and millions-year-old rock formations on the Bay of Fundy.

concrete doesn’t grow, it continues

There’s a house (and three cottages) in Centreville, Nova Scotia, built entirely from concrete. It was a labour of love and art built by Charles Macdonald in the early 1900s to live in with his wife Mable Misner Macdonald. He was an interesting guy: a sailor, painter, socialist and concrete manufacturer. Charlie’s business made profits from the demand World War I created — he had been living in a tent beside his factory (on the location) — and was able to move his business nearby and hire more locals, later building this house on the previous factory grounds.

a view of the concrete house, Wikipedia Commonsa view of the concrete house, Wikipedia Commons

Charlie’s concrete works are unfamiliar: rather than brutalism’s geometry and functional aesthetic, they’re obviously made by hand, whimsical in shape and decoration. They also masqueraded as living things: there were giant toadstools in the lawn, a dead tree-trunk that turned out to be a cast pillar of concrete, and several deer and other animals scattered around the property.

One of the deer seen todayOne of the deer seen today Charlie and one of his deerCharlie and one of his deer

I learned that concrete is a combination of aggregate (sand, gravel, crushed stone, etc.) and cement (limestone baked at extremely high temperatures) which when mixed with water, produces a chemical reaction that causes the mixture to harden. Concrete itself may be hard but it’s not flexible, which is why rebar and other materials are embedded in it to increase tensile strength, ie. reinforced concrete. The cement will continue to react to any water, even in tiny amounts, so that concrete never stops curing. (source)

In a way, concrete is alive in the sense that it’s continuing to react and change over time (at extremely slow rates) for potentially hundreds of years, even as it cracks and degrades.

The word concrete comes from the Latin word “concretus” (meaning compact or condensed), the perfect passive participle of “concrescere”, from “con-” (together) and “crescere” (to grow) (Wikipedia)

detail of a lichen-spotted deer head, missing one antler, in front of a lichen-spotted tree trunk. I loved the way the flaking paint matched the lichen and moss that was growing on it, just like other trees and rocks in garden.detail of a lichen-spotted deer head, missing one antler, in front of a lichen-spotted tree trunk. I loved the way the flaking paint matched the lichen and moss that was growing on it, just like other trees and rocks in garden.

Charlie was a socialist, which was reflected in the company’s advertising as well as its structure:

he decided that his company would operate to benefit his workers rather than to make him rich. The company ran cooperatively. Workers at Kentville Concrete did not receive wages, but “drew what they needed” from company coffers. Charlie believed in social progress and the company embodied it. Even company advertising promoted concrete as only one part of a vast movement of social change. (source)

“The Gods of High Finance of the present century to whom all the earth bows down. Without them this system of production cracks into chaos, and yet they are useless parasites and their power is the slender thread of government guarantee to their title deeds to ownership. Who will break it? those whose need is greatest.”“The Gods of High Finance of the present century to whom all the earth bows down. Without them this system of production cracks into chaos, and yet they are useless parasites and their power is the slender thread of government guarantee to their title deeds to ownership. Who will break it? those whose need is greatest.”

Concrete has been around since the Romans, and was used in large-scale buildings in the mid-1800s onwards, but during Charlie’s time it wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous a material as it is today. Unfortunately, we’ve swung the other way — and this was news to me — concrete is now the most-used material on this planet, second only to water.

There’s a great Guardian article about concrete that describes the mind-boggling amounts of it already covering land and the speed at which its being poured. It’s produced on a massive scale and produces large amounts of CO2; I hadn’t really considered concrete to be up there with oil and coal, but it certainly is. What I find ironic is its relationship to water: a lot of water goes into the mix in order to make this hydrophobic material. Then we use it to create dams, seawalls and roofs to keep the water out, but then it eventually cracks and degrades over time. Or, when we desperately need rainfall to be absorbed, it’s just too good at its job and exacerbates flooding.

The use of concrete has become entwined with development, and as a place develops its capital value increases. The article’s author gives 1990’s Japan as an example. Cities need to work with concrete manufacturers and builders to continue expansion, which creates economic growth and jobs, meaning it’s beneficial for these companies to keep funding politicians in power that favour this. In a lot of ways what concrete has come to be is the complete opposite of Charlie Macdonald’s dream.

slowness is subjectively perceived

A little ways away from the concrete house is a human-scale Camera Obscura near Cheverie. This one is built mostly from brick with a concrete base, its periscope with the aperture facing the road and nearby shoreline. When we got there the afternoon had turned grey and rainy — not ideal. But when you pulled open the door and entered into the small, dark domed room and let your eyes adjust, there was still an image to see.

the side of the Camera Obscura, built from brick in four interlocking domed structures.the side of the Camera Obscura, built from brick in four interlocking domed structures.

Camera obscuras work like the human eye: light (travelling in a straight line with colour and brightness information) bounces off of objects and enters a dark space through a small hole (the aperture) to the opposite wall, creating a reversed image of the objects outside. The reversal can be corrected through mirrors, or in the case of our eyes, our brains correct this automatically.

At first it felt like a fake projected image, like an old black and white photograph. The darkness of the room created a total divide from what was outside, save for the sound of people’s conversations coming through the door. You had to look closely to see the faint movement of tree boughs shaking in the wind that revealed it to be a live image. I was looking and looking when there was the faint shhhh sound of tires on wet pavement, and then a car suddenly appeared on the edge of the view and sped across the scene, disappearing on the opposite side — it was thrilling.

the view projected on the floor of the camera obscura’s dark room, grey and blurrythe view projected on the floor of the camera obscura’s dark room, grey and blurry

Anna had shared with us the first chapter from the book Slow Art: The Experience of Looking, Sacred Images to James Turrell by Arden Reed:

Not all art registers as either fast or slow. In many cases, if not most, tempo and duration hardly solicit our attention. The test of a good Hollywood “entertainment,” for instance, is not checking your watch. To fit our category, then, experiences must be coded as culturally slow, must make us say to ourselves, “Oh, this feels drawn out”—even at the risk of boring us. Herein lies the deeper divide: on one hand aesthetic forms in which time is neutral or invisible; on the other those in which tempo, whether fast or slow, makes itself integral to the work.

In this art, the experience is not just culturally coded, but also subjectively perceived as slow. For me, the time it took to discern whether there was motion in the camera obscura’s image forced me to slow down, let my eyes adjust to the low lighting, and attend to the details. Which in turn made the sudden appearance of the car on the road feel sudden and fast, and everything in comparison feel slow.

Reed’s definition of slow art is: “a dynamic relationship that transpires between objects and observers”, where “Objects of slow art are themselves hinged between stillness and motion, partake of both, and pivot toward freezing or flowing. Subjects of slow art hover between engagement and distraction.”

But you know what’s really slow? Continental drift.

spread of notes with rubbings of various rock surfacesspread of notes with rubbings of various rock surfaces

hundreds of millions

Our last trip was to the Bay of Fundy, where the Atlantic comes between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, whose form allows for the world’s most extreme tidal changes. We visited Cape Chignecto Park in the morning at high tide, then Five Islands Park in the afternoon at low tide. I think this was the trip that illustrated ‘embodied research’ (the name of this class) best for me.

classmates standing on the sandstone at Cape Chignecto’s shorelineclassmates standing on the sandstone at Cape Chignecto’s shoreline

The landscape itself is pretty incredible: cliff faces eroded by wind and water exposed the area’s fault, areas where the rock of two neighbouring continents crashed into each other. We were travelling with Caleb, a geologist from the park who told the story of the rock’s lifetime, full of volcanoes, glaciers, continental drift — that created the landscape we were seeing.

There are great, red, rough sandstone forms emerging from the cape’s shoreline. Sandstone that had formed from compressed sad exposed to air — sand that had been part of a desert, now found in northern Africa. Stone that had been formed millions of years ago, before the Atlantic Ocean existed.

At one point Caleb had us each hold a handful of sand. There were probably about a million grains of sand there, in each of our cupped hands. You could feel the heft of it. Even that, 1 000 000, felt like simultaneously too small and too big of an estimate. “There are a dozen of us here, so if we had another… 210 people standing with us on this beach, holding handfuls of sand, then each grain of sand would equal one year since the creation of the rocks around us: 220 000 000 years.”

Mud with stream impressions, low tide at Five IslandsMud with stream impressions, low tide at Five Islands

The continent’s move at around one centimetre per year, like the growth of our fingernails — so slow! And yet they had moved the span of the ocean — so far! In the other park we saw a strata of debris leftover by the scraping of a glacier’s underside estimated be dozens of kilometres tall. And then a ridge of black, inhospitable basalt rock spat out by a volcano. Caleb recounted visiting a trail that followed the cliffside one day, then coming back the next day after a deluge of rain, and finding the trail gone, the side of the cliff washed out and reshaped.

As I was trying to imagine this, it was like scrubbing through a video timeline in my mind’s eye that kept expanding and contracting, trying to understand what happened when. The story of this place was dynamic and changeable, despite what I perceived was static and unmoving.

We’re active agents in that change, too: we extract and break up this stone to use as aggregate in concrete.

the shore at Five Islands during low tide, my classmates walking onwards towards volcano-made igneous rockthe shore at Five Islands during low tide, my classmates walking onwards towards volcano-made igneous rock

Later, some of us had taken our shoes off and walked through the soft mud of the exposed ocean bottom at low tide. You could see patterns where freshwater was trickling into the sea, bubbles and little starbursts where air was coming up, the shells and crabs and barnacles. Sometimes your foot would abruptly sink down to your ankle while at other times your heel would hit an unseen rock sheaf below. I became very aware of what my feet were telling me, a kind of walking cartography of these concealed landforms, and much more connected to it.

Rocks have come up multiple times in my research and in previous projects — I think they’re fascinating objects to engage with through imagination and empathy. There’s something absurd and silly about it — after all, they’re just rocks — but also profound in how they can easily outlast human’s lifetimes, record the events of a place, and be so dynamic as we learned on these trips.

some open threads

Anna asked if I was noticing a kind of through-line to my experiences on these trips. I said, I think it’s about how we interact and move through this world.

  • What gets made and unmade — pathways, structures, materials — as I referenced in my previous post. There’s a kind of cycle, of us extracting from the Earth and eventually recycling and then returning it to the Earth, for better or worse. How everything is made of the same elements in different combinations created by intense forces and processes.
  • I’m thinking about the layers of different rock and sand that we saw revealed in the shore’s cliffs, a time capsule, and wondering if our layer with be marked by sheets of concrete.
  • Fake rocks: picking up pale stones on the beach, only to realise they’re washed up styrofoam chunks. And, concrete: would it be considered natural, like other rock? Could cement and aggregate be just like the chemical processes happening in volcanic lava to create basalt?
  • Alternate ways of perceiving or sensing: with our feet, using our hands, stepping into darkness, and so slowly it shifts into feeling fast

This weeks notes can also be found here.

Next time: wrapping up this class with a couple projects and pasta making. Until then, Katherine

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