IMAGE: McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets; photograph by Kim Bhasin for Business Insider.
On a sponsored media trip to McDonald’s US headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, Barbara J. Booth, the company’s director of sensory science, told Kim Bhasin of Business Insider that Chicken McNuggets come in four carefully designed shapes: the “bell,” the “bone,” the “ball,” and the “boot.”
On the Q&A page of the McDonald’s Canada site, the company confirms that there are indeed four McNugget shapes, although they steer away from the unnervingly meaty connotations of the “bone,” referring to it as a “bow-tie,” instead. This disclosure is made in response to a question from Michael F. from St. John’s, Newfoundland: “How come the boot-shaped are so much more appealing than the oval-shaped ones?”
Although McDonald’s makes a joke of the question, suggesting that people from St. John’s prefer the boot-shaped nugget because it subconsciously reminds them of the shape of the southern region of Newfoundland, it turns out that several recent studies have demonstrated a significant relationship between the shape of a food item and its taste.
For example, in a forthcoming paper in the journal Food Quality and Preference, Charles Spence of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University teams up with colleagues at CSU Long Beach and the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, as well as the legendary British cheese shop, Neal’s Yard Dairy, to investigate the shape symbolism of cheese.
IMAGE: In an extremely small 1991 study, C. J. Overbeeke and M. E. Peters of the Delft University of Technology gathered preliminary evidence to show that people can match the complex 3D shapes of dessert containers to specific pudding flavours and types, and thus, in turn, that designers can express the taste of a dessert in the form of its packaging. Photograph from their paper, “The Taste of Desserts’ Packages,” published in Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1991, 73, 575-583.
Building on both anecdotal evidence from chefs and synaesthetes, as well studies of chocolate selection boxes (milk chocolate is typically matched with round shapes, while dark chocolate is perceived as more angular), beer and its serving glasses, and even three-dimensional dessert pots (with significant implications for the packaging of vanilla pudding and tiramisu), Spence and his co-authors asked their test subjects to rate a range of British cheeses on a soft to spiky scale.
In a series of experiments that reveal the difficult of isolating sensory responses—were participants responding to the “meltingly smooth” mouthfeel of the Tunworth, or its strong and “somewhat ammoniated” flavour?—Spence, Ngo, Percival, and Smith are finally able to conclude that flavour, rather than texture or smell, is the leading contributor to a cheese’s shape association. Keen’s Cheddar, with its sharp, acidic taste, is consistently rated as more angular than the Camembert-style Tunworth or the mellow, nutty Berkswell.
IMAGE: Comparative rankings for Keen’s Cheddar, Berkswell, and Tunworth cheeses, and, as a control, milk and dark chocolate, on Spence, Ngo, Percival, and Smith’s shape symbolism response scale.
Intriguingly, toward the end of the paper, Spence et. al. speculate as to the reverse implications of their findings: the idea that shape—whether of the food item itself or its packaging—sets up a set of flavour expectations even before consumption. They cite as-yet unpublished research that suggests “that any shapes that appear on the packaging may actually influence the perceived taste of the contents,” including a 2007 study that found that, after being asked to evaluate three angular shapes, test subjects rated a piece of cheddar cheese as tasting seven percent sharper than they did after evaluating three rounded shapes.
Given that consumers have been repeatedly shown to enjoy a food substantially more if it matches their sensory perceptions, associating a sharp cheddar with angular shapes has the potential to make it seem significantly tastier. “Even a very subtle effect of shape symbolism on food perception,” Spence, Ngo, Percival, and Smith conclude, “could potentially be very important out in the marketplace.”
In other words, it’s a safe bet that McNugget morphology tells us something important about the sensory framework through which we experience the world. Within the constraint of basic economic considerations (shapes that can be made on the same line and ship well), the bell, bow-tie, ball, and boot are sculptures made by our mouths—ubiquitous, finely-tuned artifacts that reflect our increasingly sophisticated understanding of human sensory perception.
Among the five documentary shorts nominated for an Oscar this year is Redemption, a thirty-five minute film about New York City’s “canners”: the men, women, and children who collect bottles and cans from the city’s streets for their five-cent cash redemption value.
IMAGE: Walter collecting cans and bottles from a public wastebin; screenshot from Redemption’s trailer.
If you live in New York, you’re almost guaranteed to see a canner every day, dragging an overstuffed shopping trolley in the cycling lane or balancing two bulging plastic sacks on a stick held across their shoulders. If you sleep with your windows open, you may even wake up to the sound of someone going through the rubbish and recycling bags you’ve set out for collection, before they are scooped up by the city’s Sanitation trucks — but that is likely to be the limit of your interaction with canners and their trade.
Intrigued by the existence of this overlooked community, Redemption‘s directors, John Alpert and Matthew O’Neill, set out to answer the question, “What is the world of these people?”
To a certain extent, they succeed. We meet a cross-section of canners, from Walter, a sixty-year-old Vietnam War veteran and alcoholic who sees the world in terms of its redemption value, from a 250-can coffee from Starbucks to a 100-million-can townhouse, to Susan, who tells us she has a science degree and received an IBM’s Winner’s Circle Award for computer sales in 1990, but is now “helping keep the city clean” while topping up her Social Security. Some of the canners in the documentary are homeless, but most are not, and the majority used to have “normal” jobs, in restaurants, domestic service, or Chinatown sweatshops.
In Sunnyside, Queens, Nuve supports four children on her canning work, sending the three eldest to school before she starts making the rounds with her youngest. Then there is Charles, a Rastafarian who used to be a line cook at Houlihan’s; a Guatemalan couple who spend six months of the year growing corn outside Quetzaltenango and the rest canning in New York; Mr. John, a homeless canner from Osaka; and Lilly, a Chinese woman who cuts Mr. John’s hair and shaves his beard in return for his help guarding her trolley-full of cans while she goes back to the tiny one-bedroom flat she shares with seven others for a few hours’ sleep.
By following the canners as they go about their daily rounds, the film captures their long hours and exposure to the elements, their friendships and occasional fights (as when a much faster-working Chinese woman goes through a prime pile of rubbish on what Susan considers to be her street), and the reactions they elicit from fellow New Yorkers: annoyance from supermarket redemption center owners, some building superintendents, and cyclists; practised avoidance from everyone else.
The result is an engaging portrait of an extremely hard-working subsection (there are an estimated 5,000 canners working today) of New York City’s population. What the film is missing, frustratingly, are the kinds of things an edible geographer might want to know about canning — the details that might help us understand its spatial, economic, and cultural logic.
There are tantalising hints: Susan, the former IBM saleswoman, talks about a particular neighbourhood as being well-off, but does that translate into more cans to be redeemed, or fewer? Are there parts of the city with disproportionately high on-street bottle and can consumption, translating into richer pickings at the corner rubbish bins? Which buildings are less diligent about their separation, making it worth going through the regular trash as well as the bags of recyclables? In other words, what could we learn about New York City by seeing it through a canner’s eyes?
Meanwhile, the question of territory is also only briefly alluded to during Susan’s fight, but it must be a constant source of tension given that almost every canner in the movie complains about the ever-growing numbers of people who are trying to make a living on five-cent redemptions. In a follow-up article in New York Magazine, O’Neill, the documentary’s co-director, explains that “The black homeless men and the Chinese grandmas really don’t get along”:
Twenty years ago, the canning population was mostly homeless people collecting just enough to get high or buy a small bottle of vodka, but now “they’re getting out-hustled by the Chinese grandmas, because Chinese grandmas work really hard.”
According to Sure We Can, a non-profit bottle redemption center in Bushwick, some canners work twenty-hour days and earn more than $300 per week, while others only can on weekends or in good weather, in order to top up their benefits or make some pocket money. Mapping the patterns that their different routes make in both time and space would surely yield some fascinating insights, as would an anthropological look at the negotiations that go on as new canners establish routes and ambitious (or desperate) canners try to expand their territory.
The geography of redemption centres is another fraught issue that is barely touched on in the film. Theoretically, anywhere that sells cans or bottles with a redemption value must accept them back and provide the refund. In practice, some supermarkets have set up “reverse vending machines” in their lobby, but strictly control how many bottles or cans they accept back from any one individual, in order to discourage canners with towering trolley-loads from setting up camp. For the most part, canners convert their findings into cash at one of a few dedicated redemption centres — in the film, these include the Lower East Side Pathmark, which was flooded during Hurricane Sandy and has since closed.
At one point during the documentary, several canners congregate near an abandoned lot and await the arrival of a painted-over Penske van, whose Chinese crew hand out cash, load the truck with sacks of cans, and drive off. Although it is not explained, this is an example of the layer of middlemen with private trucks that is built into the canning economy, taking advantage of the lack of redemption centers in Manhattan by offering the canners three or four cents per item, instead of a nickel, and then redeeming the consolidated load themselves.
Sometimes a redemption centre owner will organise a truck pick-up himself: this 2006 New York Times article about the “King of Canners,” Eugene Gadsden, explains that, after the 29th Street redemption centre closed, Gadsden organised a group of canners to persuade Eldar Rakhamimov, a Russian immigrant who owns a redemption center in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, to drive over to Manhattan twice a week to collect their harvest at four cents a bottle.
That the opportunity to “can” exists at all in New York is due to the state’s Bottle Bill, enacted as part of environmental conservation legislation in 1982. Only eleven states in the U.S. have some kind of container deposit legislation, which occasionally leads to some cross-border shenanigans: a recent Los Angeles Times article pointed out that California’s 2011 redemption rate for plastic containers was an impressive but technically impossible 104 percent, and blamed “crafty entrepreneurs” driving “semi-trailers full of cans from Nevada or Arizona.”
Bottle Bills are usually promoted as an incentive to encourage the public to recycle more and throw away less. Various studies have shown that they do increase recycling rates dramatically: the United States’ overall beverage container recycling rate is estimated at thirty-three percent, while states with container deposit laws have an average rate of seventy percent. As watching a documentary like Redemption makes clear, however, a lot of this extra recycling and sorting is not being done by the consumers of canned or bottled beverages; instead, the state has outsourced its acts of environmental virtue, at far below minimum wage ($2.50 an hour at best, by my rough calculations), to some of its most marginalised populations.
IMAGE: Lilly and her trolley; still via Indiewire.
Financial incentives to recycle bottles and cans don’t always work this way: in Germany, my friends and hosts have always been religious about returning bottles to the shop to claim their “Pfand,” and I, who have never pursued a single cent of redemption value in California or New York, have happily followed their lead. Of course, in Germany, the standard deposit amount is €0.25, which is quite a bit more than a nickel.
In a story published on Narratively in November 2012, Laura Shin reports that in 2010, State Senator Liz Krueger proposed a five-cent increase to New York’s redemption value, “but, two years later, Krueger’s bill is still awaiting a vote.” Interestingly, Shin also quotes Sure We Can’s co-founder, Ana M. Martinez de Luco, who says that the canners oppose increasing the fee out of a fear that ten cents is enough to motivate consumers into redeeming their cans and bottles themselves:
They said, “When a family sees that they can get a dollar by collecting ten ten-cent bottles, they will put out fewer bags. People, for five cents, they don’t really care, but with ten-cent deposits, canners will have less to pick up. Even restaurants will start to keep the cans.”
In the end, Redemption raises many more questions than it answers — but perhaps that is all it needed to do. You can watch the trailer below; the film is currently screening with other Oscar-nominated shorts, so check your local listings.
Every apple for sale at your local supermarket is a clone. Every single Golden Delicious, for example, contains the exact same genetic material; though the original Golden Delicious tree (discovered in 1905, on a hillside in Clay County, West Virginia) is now gone, its DNA has become all but immortal, grafted onto an orchard of clones growing on five continents and producing more than two hundred billion pounds of fruit each year in the United States alone.
Embedded within this army of clones, however, is the potential for endless apple diversity. Each seed in an apple is genetically unique: like human siblings, seed sisters from the same fruit remix their source DNA into something that has never been seen before — and is likely, at least in the case of the apple, to be bitter, tough, and altogether unpalatable. The sheer variety of wild apples is astonishing: in its original home, near Almaty in Kazakhstan, the apple can be the size of a cherry or a grapefruit; it can be mushy or so hard it will chip teeth; it can be purple- or pink-fleshed with green, orange, or white skin; and it can be sickly sweet, battery-acid sour, or taste like a banana.
Tasting apples at the Plant Genetic Resources Unit; photograph by Jessica Rath from her 2009 visit.
In Geneva, New York, these two extremes — the domesticated apple’s endless monoculture and its wild diversity — can be found side-by-side. As part of the national germplasm system, America’s apple archivist, Philip Forsline, has assembled and tended a vast Noah’s Ark of more than 2,500 apple varieties: two clones of each, in order to preserve the fruit’s genetic biodiversity. Meanwhile, on the same Cornell/USDA Agricultural Experiment Station, Susan Brown, one of the country’s three commercial apple breeders, develops new clones by cultivating wildly different seed sisters.
Rath’s original goal was to create slip cast porcelain sculptures that embodied the incredible — and now endangered — range of the apple’s aesthetic potential; revealing the charms and qualities it has developed through co-evolution with humans as a reflection of our own desires and will. During her visit, however, Rath also became fascinated by the conjoined twin of Forsline’s apple archive: Brown’s speculative sisters and successful, selected clones, which she photographed as bare-branched trees against a white backdrop.
Intrigued by the idea of artwork that reflects on the complicated threads of selection and preservation that bind humans and apples together, Venue toured the exhibition with Rath. The edited transcript of our conversation, which ranges from the trickiness of Vegas Red glaze to the future of apple breeding, appears below.
• • •
PI 588933.12 (unnamed cluster); photographed on the tree by Jessica Rath during her 2009 visit.
Jessica Rath: I read about it in Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire. The first chapter is about apples, and he visits the orchard in Geneva. I read that section and I knew I needed to make work about it. I don’t do that very often but that passage, where he writes about the variety of the apples and the way they look and taste… I wanted to make something as intriguing as that — I wanted to get you to feel that crazy diversity. I sat on that for years. I wanted to go there, but I had no idea how I was going to make work about it.
I just bookmarked it, and then my apricot tree died. I made a peel — an inverted mould, I guess — of this dying tree, and I made a slip cast of its one, last fruit. I’ve changed mediums constantly in my practice — I usually do site-specific installations or I do performance work — but I talked to some sculptor friends to find out how to create a sort of glowing, golden aura for this last apricot, and they all said slip cast porcelain. So I made it, and I looked at it and, and I thought, that’s not it. That’s not good enough. But it did glow. And that’s what made me think I was ready to do something with the apples. I thought, if I can make them glow, then I can make this work. So that’s when I raised some money on Kickstarter to be able to get there.
That was the other piece of the puzzle that fell into place. My daughter was a baby and I hadn’t read anything in months, but I was on a flight and I picked up The New York Times, and there was an article about Kickstarter. I went home, I raised money on Kickstarter, and I got it about a month before the end of apple season; so I raced over to the Plant Genetic Resources Unit for a forty-eight hour visit.
Scouting for apples at the Plant Genetic Resources Unit; photograph by Jessica Rath from her 2009 visit.
I learned a lot while just scouting on the first day, from a man named William Srmack who manages the orchards and works directly with Philip Forsline, who’s the curator of the collection. On the second day, I just collected apples. I brought home several hundred apples. Part of the Kickstarter money bought an extra refrigerator for the studio and I loaded it and kept it pretty cold. I took a lot of photos of the fruit on the tree, and in a light box, too.
PI 483254.22 (unnamed—sunset cluster); photographed on the tree by Jessica Rath during her 2009 visit.
Twilley: Let’s look at the sculptures. If I understand correctly, although each pair or cluster represents a different breed, they’re not casts of specific, particular apples, but rather abstracted, ideal forms — or ur-apples — that embody the breed’s characteristic shape and colour.
Rath: Exactly. With slip cast porcelain, you lose thirty percent of the volume when you fire. So, even if you wanted to do a cast of the original apple, you couldn’t get the same scale because it would be shrunk by thirty percent, which not only makes it too small, it also miniaturizes the features. It makes it kind of a caricature. It isn’t just small, it’s cartoonish. So it doesn’t work.
I already knew I had to make an object thirty percent larger in order to get the scale right. But the other thing is that I didn’t want to make something descriptive. I wanted to make something that communicated something about the wild diversity of these apples and the ways that they embody different facets of our desires through the science fiction of breeding — the thing Michael Pollan is writing about.
When you describe things accurately in a botanical drawing sort of way, it dies. When artwork is too illustrative, it can only describe and it can’t go any further than that. You recognize it and then you stop being interested. You’re amazed at the replication, you’re amazed at the representation, but then you actually can’t think about it as anything other than its finite definition.
A Yellow Bellflower photographed on the tree by Jessica Rath during her 2009 visit. The Yellow Bellflower is thought to have originated in Burlington, New Jersey, and is still grown as an heirloom variety today. It is described as a “large, handsome, winter apple” that is equally delicious when used for cidering, baking, or eating out of hand.
For my sculptures, the shapes are very similar to the original. They’re just pushed a little, so that the things about them — the sculptural elements about them, their particular volume or tilt, or how fat and breast-like they are — are composed three-dimensionally in such a way that you notice them a bit more, and they pop a little. They’re not on a tree. They’re not something that’s dangling that you want to pick because you want to eat it; so, instead, I have to make them attractive through a very different model — an art historical model. I’ve got to present them like they’re a still-life, and compose them in that framework, so that you can be intrigued by them again the way you would be if you saw them as a fruit on a tree.
Yellow Bellflower, Jessica Rath, high-fire glazed porcelain, 2012. Rath explained that she focused on the Bellflower’s “fantastic curves and lilts. It was very muscular — even beefy — to the point where it felt almost as though it shouldn’t be called an apple, but rather some other fruit instead.”
Geoff Manaugh: In the exhibition brochure, it says it took two years of experimentation to arrive at these glazes. Can you talk a bit more about that chemical process?
Rath: In ceramics, there are low-fire glazes, which are very descriptive. They stay the same colour. Then the high-fire glazes have more of a glow to them. They also just have a lot of materials in them, and are a lot more unpredictable. You’ve probably seen it at pottery stalls at the fair: when you look at all the mugs or plates or whatever that have all been dunked in one kind of cerulean blue, they will all have turned out slightly different. Some of them will be light blue or whiter or purplish, depending on where they were in the kiln and how thick the glaze was on it and how it dripped.
I originally did that apricot, that last fruit, in a low-fire glaze. But for the apples, I steered away from being that descriptive with the glazes because they died for me, except for ones in which I would layer quite a few low-fire glazes. There’s this fuzzy speckling you can get in low-fire, which I wanted.
Normally, you would make little rectangular tiles of clay and you’d fire it and you’d have fifty little things to test the glaze on, till you got roughly what you want. But these apples are round and irregular rather than flat, and the glaze moves on them in very particular ways depending on the size and the angles of their curves, so I couldn’t test on strips. I had to test on the object.
Deacon Jones, Jessica Rath, high-fire glazed porcelain, 2012. The Deacon Jones is the largest apple in Rath’s inventory, at a magnificent and somewhat incredible seven inches tall
This one [shown above], the Deacon Jones, probably took one hundred tests. This was the hardest one, even though it’s the straightest glaze. All of the others are tweaked a little, but the glaze on this is pretty straight. It’s called Vegas Red and it does get this red but usually only in parts or pieces, say, at the bottom of the bowl. It doesn’t stay a solid red. And it also drips. So to get it to actually sit there and get this red all over is one out of one hundred, if you’re lucky.
It’s also down to a very, very close relationship with the ceramic technician that took about two years to build, so that after two years of watching me fail over and over again, he put it in a sweet spot in the kiln. He’s Japanese, and he’s pretty old-school, and I think he thought I had finally worked hard enough that I deserved a sweet spot. There’s only one or two of them in the kiln. All of a sudden I got three perfectly red apples in a month. I knew I was improving over time, but it was that relationship, too.
PI 588933.12 (Unnamed cluster), Jessica Rath, high-fire glazed porcelain and bronze, 2012.
This is an unnamed apple [shown above], which is based on trees in the orchard that were grafted from wild apples in Kazakhstan, from the original home of the apple. It’s low-fire over high-fire. I was interested in this sort of speckling blush that they had, but then the blush took over. My approach was to get to a point with the experimentation where I found something that grabbed me and then let it go with that and work with that.
Twilley: That sounds a little like the apple breeding process.
Rath: Yes—I found a quality I liked and then I bred and bred to refine it, essentially. This is a Dulcina, which is another one with a blush that I arrived at while I was trying to get the rest of it into a more green or yellowish stage. I loved the metaphor of the night sky that’s held in it, so I just went for that.
There’s supposed to be an edition of two of each of these apples, and I’m unable to replicate this one. It’s the last one. I’m still working on it. After you leave, I’ll go up to the kiln again. The idea of producing an edition of two is an odd one in sculpture, but it made sense for the apples: they’re always planted in pairs in the orchard, as a Noah’s Ark idea — in case something happens to one.
These final ones [shown above] are very, very pale yellow on the tree and when the sun hits them they turn white. You know that they’re yellow, but when you’re in this orchard, things look different. I’ve described it to people as being like when you go fishing, and when you catch a fish, it has a certain glimmer to the skin while it’s alive. As soon as you kill it, as soon as it’s dead, the whole sheen shifts into a kind of grey. The depth of the colour is not the same. It’s immediate.
PI 594107.j5 (unnnamed—whiteness), photographed on the tree by Jessica Rath during her 2009 visit.
I swear that these apples have the same thing. There’s something about them when they’re on the tree — they have this luminosity. As soon as you pick them, the depth of the colour isn’t there, and the whiteness is just a pale yellow. You can’t capture it in a photograph, either. That’s why I chose ceramics. I’ve no business doing any ceramics. I’ve never done it before. I’m a sculptor, but sculptors and ceramicists are usually in separate departments. But when I saw what the glazes could do, I thought that I could catch that life again.
Porcelain vitrifies — it turns to glass with the glaze — which means that the body of the sculpture and the colour that’s applied, this glaze, become one body. That’s a technical thing, but it’s also real and aesthetic. In sculpture, that doesn’t happen. You can use car body paint to make something glow and shift in the light, but it’s always applied, and in ceramics the colour and the body become one. I had a whole series of fifteen years of work where I never used colour because I always thought, what’s the point? It’s not part of the body of the work; it’s just applied.
Twilley: Did you take the tree photographs in the show at the same time, or is that a separate project?
Rath: While I was at the Plant Genetics Resource Unit, I got a call from this woman, Susan Brown. I don’t even know how she got hold of me, but thank god she did. She said, “You need to come over here, because I’ve got these trees and you need to see them.” It turns out she’s one of only three commercial apple breeders in the United States, and her job is to cross apple varieties to improve them and create the next Jonagold.
Dr. Susan K. Brown and Jessica Rath during the tree photo shoot, March 2011; photography courtesy Jessica Rath.
And I said, “I’m really busy. I’ve got 48 hours. I’m really into these apples.” And she just said, “Get the rest of your apples and come over here. We’ve got three hours before the sun sets.”
I don’t know why I said yes. I was just very lucky. She picked me up in her truck and she showed me a row of cloned trees. It was October, so all of the leaves were still on the trees, and she hadn’t pruned them, because she wants to see what the architecture will do if it’s not touched. It was just this big row of green, and I couldn’t really see anything.
Sisters small and different, Jessica Rath, archival pigment print on exhibition fiber, 2012.
So then she took me to another row of trees that were just saplings. They had some leaves, but not many, because they were so young. Every single one of them had a different architecture — some of them were weeping, some were standing upright, some of them had branches like corkscrew or at perfect right angles. It was like a carnival. They were just different bodies, different leaves, and different sheens to the leaf. She said, “This is what happens when you cross.” Then I got it.
She took me back to her office and showed me a big binder — she had been photographing her trees for years. She understood her trees as artwork, and she wanted somebody else to have a conversation with about that.
She had tried to stretch these sheets behind trees in the winter, and I thought — that’s it! I need to do that, but I need to do it really, really well. So I applied for a grant to go back and photograph Susan’s trees in winter.
I came back about a year and a half later. Susan and I spent a day scouting, then we shot for three days. I was trying to not only show the architecture and the diversity, but also what I wanted in terms of understanding her work, and the difference between the sisters and the clones. The sisters had this extreme variety, but when I went back, I fell in love with the clones. They were all covered in leaves before; I couldn’t really see them. But when I went back in winter, they seemed to not embody the diversity but rather, instead, embody this kind of limiting figure, this figure that had been worked on, that had been “improved” by humans, and that was beautiful but also really haunting.
Clone with central leader, Jessica Rath, archival pigment print on exhibition fiber, 2012.
Some of them are bred for their architecture, but lots of them are bred for other qualities — resistance to browning or disease, high yield, or taste — and are kept alive despite their architecture. Susan told me that they’re on the cusp of moving to quite a different way of breeding, using genetic markers, so, in the future, she probably won’t have rows and rows of such extreme variety. She’ll have more control.
Clone spreading with scab resistance, Jessica Rath, archival pigment print on exhibition fiber, 2012.
That idea of artificial selection versus natural selection, and the way that certain varieties become weaker, but yet more common, because they’ve entangled humans into maintaining them — that was something I was thinking about before I went to graduate school. I was working with flora in general, but I couldn’t figure out a way to get plants to talk, and so I gave up and moved on. Then, when I read The Botany of Desire, after fifteen years of staying away from the topic, it was as if Pollan had given me a voice for them — an imaginary voice in which they’re drawing us in through aesthetics and through taste in order to get us to reproduce them. Finally, I felt as though I could have a discussion with plants — that they had agency.
Clone with perseverance, Jessica Rath, archival pigment print on exhibition fiber, 2012.
Manaugh: It’s interesting that the sisters are all shown in group portraits, whereas the clones are shot on their own, as individuals. Was that a conscious decision, and, if so, what was the intention behind it?
Rath: It was interesting — I tried to shoot the clones as a group, but they just became a landscape. It just seemed that the way to show the clones was as an adult, as something that you would pull material from that had lived a life already, that was full of its own, carefully constructed shape already, and that had certain defined characteristics. I wanted it to capture the potential of using it for these breeding experiments. Meanwhile, the sisters are all about the variety.
From left to right, Cole Slutsky, Mary Wingfield, Timothy Zwicky, and Dustin McKibben set up the 20 x 30 ft backdrop for the photograph Water Sprout; photograph courtesy Jessica Rath.
Backdrop set up for Clone with central leader; photograph courtesy Jessica Rath.
The set up was tortuous. I was using a twenty-by-thirty-foot muslin backdrop. There were five people holding it down, the wind was gusting — it could have killed all of us. There was a photographer, the photographer’s assistant, and me all shooting. We had computer equipment tethered to everything and the rows of trees are not very far apart, so we were really squeezed in to get enough distance. And it was early March, so it was unbelievably cold.
Clone water sprout, Jessica Rath, archival pigment print on exhibition fiber, 2012.
I love this one [shown above], particularly because the horizon almost appears like it is an actual horizon, not just one created by the backdrop. For a second, you could think is there a cliff on the other side of the tree. And yet, behind the backdrop, the landscape is present in a sort of ghostlike way. For me, that’s part of the idea — that the landscape is constructed only as much as you need it to be in order to make the thing live.
Clone weeping with resistance, Jessica Rath, archival pigment print on exhibition fiber, 2012.
I also love the fact that there are allusions to the wind that’s there through the folds and ripples. I spent a lot of time working on these images in Photoshop, after the fact, cropping out and removing things — stray branches from other trees, and so on — that distracted from the composition. But I deliberately kept some of the ripples, because I liked the evidence of the physical tension in the landscape. It’s also part of pointing to the artifice. The backdrop doesn’t disappear, and so you remain aware that the whole thing is a construction.
Clone with early pubescence, Jessica Rath, archival pigment print on exhibition fiber, 2012.
The title of this one, Clone with early pubescence, [shown above] alludes to the fact that it’s budding too early, so it’s about to get cut down. It’s already dead to Susan, because it has no use. As we walked around, she was telling me about each of the trees — what will happen to them, or what is promising about them, or what she has used them for — and those stories definitely crept into the way I chose to frame and title the shots.
Twilley: Finally, I’m curious about your next project. I’ve heard a rumor that you’re working on something to do with bees — is that true?
Rath: Yes — well, tomatoes or bees. I loved Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland. The idea of shipping tomatoes from Florida to New York in 1880, in a wagon? It’s crazy! [laughs] I’m doing a series of watercolors of tomatoes right now, which are very different than this. They combine scientific text with quotes from literature about redness, and blushes, and scarlet letters — all about how colours have been used to place judgment on things, and the gendered language that goes with that. There are a lot of “wenches” and “whores” in that series as well. Tasteless whores, too, because some of them are grocery-bought tomatoes. I’m playing with language like that with this series, which is a very different kind of playing than in this apple project — much less subtle.
The bee idea involves visiting Dr. Nieh’s laboratory in San Diego. He’s a bee expert and he has figured out all these incredible ways that bees are communicating, to which he’s given wonderful names like superorganism inhibitory signaling and olfactory eavesdropping.
I’m interested in doing an installation of a hive. It would be to human scale, and it would play with the biofeedback of the people in the hive, and how they interact, as well as the atmospheric conditions. The idea is to create a composition based on all those inputs that shifts in real-time, all based on the scientific research of Dr. Nieh into how bees communicate. I’m looking for a composer to work with on that right now.
Their secret lay in the construction of a honeycomb of solar walls. As Suzanne Freidberg writes in Fresh, the Montreuillois enclosed rectangular plots “in walls of plaster — a material that absorbs heat much more effectively than brick — and oriented them all north-south, so as to capture the most sunlight.”
This gridiron of sun traps were surprisingly effective, according to Freidberg:
Indeed, both day and night the gardens were warmer than their surroundings by several degrees Celsius. In this microclimate Mediterranean fruits thrived. Peaches ripened a month before others on the market, when prices were still sky-high. In addition, the villagers trained their espaliers to stretch out across the east-facing walls like giant fans cradling each peach in a perpetual sheltered sunbath. This design produced not only unusually big and beautiful fruits but also more of them from each tree.
French horticulturalists, unable to believe that illiterate peasants had come up with this system on their own, suspected they had stolen the idea from the king’s garden at Versailles. Nonetheless, observers marveled at the sight of solar walls applied at the scale of infrastructure, re-designing the landscape and microclimate of an entire village. Freidberg translates the comments of a contemporary visitor, Pierre Jean-Baptiste Legrand d’Aussy:
It’s a really interesting spectacle to look down from the surrounding hillsides on this immense multitude of gardens, carved up every which way by walls covered with trees and verdant vines. You think you’re looking at a hive of bees…
Looking at panoramic postcards of Montreuil from the end of the nineteenth century, with fully three-quarters of the town’s territory transformed into plaster-walled solar courtyards for peaches, it’s tempting to compare the landscape with the sea of greenhouses have similarly reformatted El Ejido, in the Almeira province of Spain, today.
The desert landscape that previously served as the backdrop for Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns,” as architect Keller Easterling notes in her chapter on El Ejido in Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture and Its Political Masquerades, is now a sea of plastic — the largest concentration of greenhouses in the world, hot-housing summer vegetables all winter long.
The nineteenth-century plaster wall of Montreuil is paralleled, in El Ejido, by the adaptation, in the 1970s, of a flat-roofed, “parallel type,” plastic-sheeting and wire structure used locally for growing table grapes. Just as in Montreuil, this single structural unit became the “germ,” in Easterling’s formulation, for a new landscape-scale agricultural infrastructure, reshaping the region’s ecology and its economy.
IMAGE: Satellite imagery of the El Ejido peninsula, via.
Of course, the tiled suntraps of El Ejido have not only transformed a single town, but an entire peninsula — the 80,000 contiguous acres of parallel plastic greenhouses are clearly visible from space. In addition, while the fruit growers of Montreuil drew on their wives and children to provide cheap labour, the greenhouses of El Ejido rely on seasonal or illegal workers from North Africa, in a complicated and exploitative relationship that, as Easterling writes, has ignited a “tomato war” — “a translocal valve of labor, race, and migration problems in Europe.”
Unpacking the economic, ecological, and geopolitical forces that conspire to transform a “germ” into a highly engineered landscape, worthy of postcard and satellite photography, as well as our marveling attention — and then, as was the case in Montreuil and as seems inevitable in El Ejido, given its aquifer depletion, to dismantle it half a century later, is a fascinating exercise. The lucrative market in counter-seasonal produce has spurred ever more sophisticated architectures of climate modification — including, of course, my personal obsession, cold storage — marching across the urban hinterlands in formation…
IMAGE: A random mutation caused this Golden Delicious apple to turn half-red, half-green. According to Susan Brown, she can breed apples with a stable variation of this mutation that creates candy-cane red stripes on a pale yellow-skinned apple. Photo ARCHANT via The Daily Telegraph.
In a 2011 talk titled “Taste the Apples of the Future,” Cornell University professor Susan Brown, one of only three commercial apple breeders in the United States, offered an enticing glimpse of yellow-red chimeras, pink-fleshed varieties, and the non-browning NY-674, whose resistance to discoloration was discovered by chance during an equipment failure.
Before moving onto her own, more practical work developing higher yielding, earlier fruiting varieties that are resistant to cold storage “scald,” Brown also mentioned that in Japan, farmers were already growing apples with built-in branding — the Japanese symbol for “good health” tattoed onto their skin by the sun.
IMAGE: Field Worker & Stenciled Apples, Fall, Aomori Prefecture, photograph by artist Jane Alden Stevens.
In 2007, Cincinnati-based artist Jane Alden Stevens spent four months in Japan, documenting the extraordinary attention its orchardists put into growing perfectly beautiful apples. In addition to culling blossoms to reduce over-crowding and ensure regular, large fruit, and then hand-pollinating them using powder-puff wands, Japanese farmers put a double-layer of wax paper bags around their baby apples for most of the growing season.
IMAGE: Hand Pollination #1, Spring, Aomori Prefecture, photograph by artist Jane Alden Stevens.
IMAGE: Bags for Apples, Early Summer, Aomori Prefecture, photograph by artist Jane Alden Stevens.
The bags do double duty, shielding the apples from pests and weather damage while also increasing the skin’s photosensitivity. In the autumn, a few weeks before harvest, the bags are removed — first, the outer one, revealing the fruit’s sun-deprived, pearly white skin, and then, up to ten days later, the translucent inner ones, whose different colours are chosen to filter the light spectrum in order to produce the desired hue.
IMAGE: Removing Inner Bags #1, Fall, Aomori Prefecture, photograph by artist Jane Alden Stevens.
As they are finally exposed to the elements for the final few weeks before harvest, the most perfect of these already perfect apples are then decorated with a sticker that blocks sunlight to stencil an image onto the fruit. This “fruit mark” might be the Japanese kanji for “good health,” as Susan Brown mentioned. Others have brand logos (most notably that of Apple, the company), and some, according to Stevens, are “negatives with pictures. One Japanese pop star put his picture on apples to give his entourage for presents.”
IMAGE: Photogram Beneath the Stencil, Fall, Aomori Prefecture, photograph by artist Jane Alden Stevens.
Far from being the apple of the future, however, Stevens tells the University of Cincinnati magazine that apple bagging and stencilling is in decline. When she visited Japan in 2007, apple bagging was applied to about thirty percent of the crop, “but fifty years ago, it affected seventy percent,” Stevens says. “Farmers do it themselves, but their children aren’t following in their footsteps, and there aren’t enough laborers to do the work.”
Fruit-marking is not even a recent — or an exclusively Japanese — development. I first came across mention of it in Suzanne Freidberg’s wonderful book, Fresh, which describes the efforts of the nineteenth-century fruit-growers of Montreuil to “brand” their apples for the novelty-seeking Parisian luxury market. Wives and children spent their winters folding and gluing thousands of paper bags, and their springtime covering up each individual apple at a rate of up to 3,000 per hour.
The introduction of fruit stencils followed quickly behind, initially applied to the fruit with egg white or bave d’escargot (snail slime). According to Freidberg, particularly ambitious growers also developed negatives on their apples, in a kind of “fruit photography”:
The marked fruit of the Montreuillois first won renown at the 1894 Saint Petersburg exhibition, where they presented the czar of Russia with an apple stenciled with his own portrait. King Leopold of Belgium, Edward VII of England, and Teddy Roosevelt received similar fruits.
IMAGE: Applying gelatin glue to an apple, from the “Le travail quotidien” section of the Société Régionale d’Horticulture de Montreuil online archive.
IMAGE: Peeling away a stencil on an apple, from the “Le travail quotidien” section of the Société Régionale d’Horticulture de Montreuil online archive.
The idea of fruit-marking may well have come from an even earlier source, Freidberg notes, mentioning a reference in an Arabic treatise on agriculture from the twelfth century. Nonetheless, by the 1930s, the practice was all but extinct in France, as Montreuil was absorbed into the Parisian suburbs and an industrialising agricultural sector produced ever cheaper mass-market fruit.
Still, after three years of trying, the Société Régionale d’Horticulture de Montreuil appears to be successfully reviving the lost art for today’s hobbyists and home gardeners. Their album of recent successes includes swirling dragons and tribal imagery worthy of any would-be Ink Master; a twenty-first century apple is more likely to sport a Che tattoo than a king or tsar.
IMAGE: A stencil of Che Guevara, from the fruits marqués section of the Société Régionale d’Horticulture de Montreuil website.
Perhaps Cornell’s Susan Brown is onto something with apple stencils, after all. Although the commercial growers she works with are unlikely to pursue fruit bagging and photography, at least in the near future (the labour costs are simply too high), the technique seems ripe for rediscovery by today’s artisanal producers. Banksy could market a line of stencils for London’s fruit trees, Brooklyn growers could develop photographs of local landmarks on their heirloom varieties, and suburban families could entice their children into choosing apples over sweets by imprinting them with cartoon characters. Move over, bacon — tattooed apples are the next trend.
First, drink some black coffee. Next, rub your tongue against the roof of your mouth. It should feel a little rough, like very fine sandpaper: the tiny bumps on your tongue, called papillae, are raised just enough to create friction against your palate.
If you now add cream to your coffee and try again, the sensation should be much smoother — almost velvety. A layer of fat and mucous is now coating your tongue, providing lubrication and preventing friction.
What you have just done was, until very recently, the most accurate method for evaluating the oral perception of fat — the precise degree of tongue-coating creaminess in milk, mayonnaise, or chocolate pudding.
IMAGE: Diagram showing the effect of fatty emulsions on the touch receptors in the tongue’s papillae, via NIZO.
In the worlds of both taste research and product development, fat is an unsolved problem. Scientists are still trying to determine exactly how the human sensory system perceives fat; last year, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis were the first to find a specific taste receptor for fat, but most experts agree that people identify high-fat foods in large part by texture.
Meanwhile, for food giants such as Nestle and Unilever, formulating low fat or fat-free yogurts, cheese spreads, and ice creams that somehow still seem creamy and rich is something of a holy grail.
Until now, however, a company seeking to test the mouthfeel of its new fat-free cheesecake dessert has had two not very satisfactory options: hiring humans to repeat the rubbing experiment you undertook at the start of this post, except with cheesecake dessert, and then comparing their reported perceptions, or else simulating that experiment in a friction-measuring device that uses an analogue human tongue (often from a pig, though a bumpy, moulded silicone surface is sometimes used instead).
IMAGE: Tribometers measure the amount of friction as two surfaces rub together. The photograph on the right (via NIZO) shows a close-up of a pig’s tongue in the tribometer head. The schematic diagram on the left comes from a paper authored by scientists at a Nestlé Research Centre in Switzerland.
The problems with both methods are several and obvious. Human beings are expensive, time-consuming, variable, and imprecise — oral sensory perception can be affected by mood, previous meals, humidity levels, and even the earlier application of lotions and moisturizer to other parts of the body.
Meanwhile, measurements made using a machine that rubs cheesecake against a pig’s tongue are microscopically detailed, quantitative rather than qualitative, and much more easily controlled against external factors — yet, unsurprisingly, they frequently do not end up correlating very well to human sensory perception. Given these limitations on innovation, it is perhaps no wonder that fat-free products still generally disappoint.
However, in a paper to be published in June 2013 in the journal Food Hydrocolloids, scientist George A. Van Aken of NIZO, a Dutch food research company, reveals a new method of measuring mouthfeel: the wonderfully named “acoustic tribology.” Van Aken took a tiny contact microphone, packed it in polyethylene to keep it dry, and secured it behind a test subject’s upper front incisor teeth in order to record the acoustic signal produced by the varying vibrations of their papillae as their tongue rubbed against their palate.
IMAGE: Diagram showing Van Aken’s experimental acoustic tribology set up, from his forthcoming paper “Acoustic emission measurement of rubbing and tapping contacts of skin and tongue surfaces in relation to tactile perception.”
In short, Van Aken’s device means that we can now listen to what our tongues feel.
The process works by picking up vibrations within tongue tissue, which vary depending on the amount of deformation the papillae experience when rubbing against the palate. To return to our initial experiment, you can actually listen to a recording of the feel of black coffee (mp3), and then compare it to the softer sound of the feel of coffee with cream (mp3) or hear them both back-to-back in this NIZO video (wmv) — from sawing wood to depilling a sweater, and back again, interrupted by an occasional higher-pitched pop (apparently, these are caused by the “snapping of salivary films and air bubbles at the papilla surfaces”).
IMAGE: Fat-free black coffee offers the papillae no protective coating, resulting in greater friction, more oscillation within the tissue, and hence a louder acoustic signal. The addition of cream deposits a lubricating layer of fat on the tongue, dampening the friction and thus the vibration-causing movement of the papillae, and resulting in a much softer recording.
Using his new acoustic tribometer, Van Aken tests milk of varying fat content, cream, yogurt, quark, and even “cheese systems,” achieving a much higher resolution picture of mouthfeel than could ever have been achieved using human tissue before. In particular, he finds some intriguing patterns in the acoustic signatures of mouthfeel over time: for example, although skimmed milk initially produces a loud signal (it actually “cleans” fat off the tongue), eventually the sound tapers off, leading Van Aken to speculate that “the tongue surface is smoothened by wear.”
In other words, it’s possible that everything tastes creamy when your tongue is worn out — which perhaps lends weight to the Victorian advice to chew each mouthful one hundred times before swallowing.
IMAGE: Acoustic signals of milk samples with increasing fat content, potentially suggesting that optimum creaminess occurs at 3% fat content. Diagram from Van Aken’s forthcoming paper “Acoustic emission measurement of rubbing and tapping contacts of skin and tongue surfaces in relation to tactile perception.”
Van Aken is, no doubt correctly, excited at the opportunities his system offers to food scientists trying to engineer creamy fat-free versions of everything. For me, however, the synaesthetic pleasures of hearing mouthfeel remind me of psychologist Charles Spence’s fascinating work on crossmodal interactions between the senses, including the IgNobel award-winning finding that Pringles actually taste crispier when your consumption is accompanied by an amplified recording of in-mouth Pringle crunching. Perhaps Van Aken’s device will enable us to bypass the food scientists and their fat-free alternatives altogether, and instead add the sensory equivalent of cream to a skim latte through a smooth mouthfeel recording, available for 99p on iTunes…
When European farmers arrived in North America, they claimed it with fences. Fences were the physical manifestation of a belief in private ownership and the proper use of land — enclosed, utilised, defended — that continues to shape the American way of life, its economic aspirations, and even its form of government.
Today, fences are the framework through the national landscape is seen, understood, and managed, forming a vast, distributed, and often unquestioned network of wire that somehow defines the “land of the free” while also restricting movement within it.
In the 1870s, the U.S. faced a fence crisis. As settlers ventured away from the coast and into the vast grasslands of the Great Plains, limited supplies of cheap wood meant that split-rail fencing cost more than the land it enclosed. The timely invention of barbed wire in 1874 allowed homesteaders to settle the prairie, transforming its grassland ecology as dramatically as the industrial quantities of corn and cattle being produced and harvested within its newly enclosed pastures redefined the American diet.
In Las Cruces, New Mexico, Venue met with Dean M. Anderson, a USDA scientist whose research into virtual fencing promises equally radical transformation — this time by removing the mile upon mile of barbed wire stretched across the landscape. As seems to be the case in fencing, a relatively straightforward technological innovation — GPS-equipped free-range cows that can be nudged back within virtual bounds by ear-mounted stimulus-delivery devices — has implications that could profoundly reshape our relationships with domesticated animals, each other, and the landscape.
In fact, after our hour-long conversation, it became clear to Venue that Anderson, a quietly-spoken federal research scientist who admits to taping a paper list of telephone numbers on the back of his decidedly unsmart phone, keeps exciting if unlikely company with the vanguard of the New Aesthetic, writer and artist James Bridle’s term for an emerging way of perceiving (and, in this case, apportioning) digital information under the influence of the various media technologies—satellite imagery, RFID tags, algorithmic glitches, and so on—through which we now filter the world.
The Google Maps rainbow plane, an iconic image of the New Aesthetic for the way in which it accidentally captures the hyperspectral oddness of new representational technologies and image-compression algorithms on a product intended for human eyes.
After all, Anderson’s directional virtual fencing is nothing less than augmented reality for cattle, a bovine New Aesthetic: the creation of a new layer of perceptual information that can redirect the movement of livestock across remote landscapes in real-time response to lines humans can no longer see. If gathering cows on horseback gave rise to the cowboy narratives of the West, we might ask in this context, what new mythologies might Anderson’s satellite-enabled, autonomous gather give rise to?
Our discussion ranged from robotic rats and sheep laterality to the advantages of GPS imprecision and the possibility of high-tech herds bred to suit the topography of particular property. The edited transcript appears below, reposted from the Venue site.
• • •
Nicola Twilley: I thought I’d start with a really basic question, which is why you would want to make a virtual fence rather than a physical one. After all, isn’t the role of fencing to make an intangible, human-determined boundary into a tangible one, with real, physical effects?
Dean M. Anderson: Let me put it this way, in really practical terms: When it comes to managing animals, every conventional fence that I have ever built has been in the wrong place the next year.
That said, I always kid people when I give a talk. I say, “Don’t go out and sell your U.S. Steel stock—because we are still going to need conventional fencing along airport runways, interstates, railroad right-of-ways, and so on.” The reason why is because, when you talk about virtual fencing, you’re talking about modifying animal behaviour.
Then I always ask this question of the audience: “Is there anybody who will raise their hand, who is one hundred percent predictable, one hundred percent of the time?”
The thing about animal behaviour is that it’s not one hundred percent predictable, one hundred percent of the time. We don’t know all of the integrated factors that go into making you turn left, when you leave the building, rather than right and so on. Once you realize that virtual fencing is capitalising on modifying animal behaviour, then you also realize that if there are any boundaries that, for safety or health reasons, absolutely cannot be breached, then virtual fencing is not the methodology of choice.
I always start with that disclaimer. Now, to get back to your question about why you’d want to make a virtual fence: On a worldwide basis, animal distribution remains a challenge, whether it’s elephants in Africa or Hereford cows in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
You will have seen this, although you may not have recognised exactly what you were looking at. For example, if you fly into Albuquerque or El Paso airports, you will come in quite low over rangeland. If you see a drinking water location, you will see that the area around that watering point looks as brown and devoid of vegetation as the top of this table, whereas, out at the far distance from the drinking water, there may be plants that have never seen a set of teeth, a jaw, or any utilisation at all.
So you have the problem of non-uniform utilisation of the landscape, with some places that are over utilised and other places that are underutilised. The over utilised locations with exposed soil are then vulnerable to erosion from wind and water, which then lead to all sorts of other challenges for those of us who want to be ecologically correct in our thinking and management actions.
Even as a college student, animal distribution was something that I was taught was challenging and that we didn’t have an answer to. In fact, I recently wrote a review article that showed that, just in the last few years, we have used more than sixty-eight different strategies to try to affect distribution. These include putting a fence in, developing drinking water in a new location, putting supplemental feed in different locations, changing the times you put out feed, putting in artificial shade, so that animals would move to that location—there are a host of things that we have tried. And they all work under certain conditions. Some of them work even better when they’re used synergistically. There are a lot of combinations—whatever n factorial is for sixty-eight.
But one thing that all of them basically don’t allow is management in real time. This is a challenge. Think of this landscape — the Chihuahuan desert, which, by the way, is the largest desert in North America. If you’ve been here during our monsoon, when we (sometimes) receive our mean annual nine-inches plus of precipitation, you’ll see that where Nicola is sitting, she can be soaking wet, while Geoff and I, just a few feet away, stay bone dry. Precipitation patterns in this environment can be like a knife cut.
Students learning rangeland analysis at the Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center; photograph by J. Victor Espinoza for NMSU Agricultural Communications.
You can see that, with conventional fencing, you might have your cows way over on the western perimeter of your land, while the rainfall takes place along the other edge. In two weeks, where that rain has fallen, we are going to have a flush of annuals coming up, which would provide high-quality nutrition. But, if you have the animals clear over three pastures away, then you’ve got to monitor the rainfall-related growth, and you’ve got to get labour to help round those animals up and move them over to this new location.
You can see how, many times as a manager, you might actually know what to do to optimise your utilisation, but economics and time prevent it from happening. Which means your cows are all in the wrong place. It’s a lose-lose, rather than a win-win.
One of Dean Anderson’s colleagues, Derek Bailey, herds cattle the old-fashioned way on NMSU’s Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center. One aspect of Bailey’s research is testing whether targeted grazing, made possible through Anderson’s GPS collar technology, could reduce the incidence of catastrophic western wildfires. Photograph courtesy NMSU.
These annual plants will reach their peak of nutritional quality and decline without being utilised for feed. I’m not saying that seed production is not important, but, if part of this landscape’s call is to support animals, then you are not optimising what you have available.
My concept of virtual fencing was to have that perimeter fence around your property be conventional, whether it’s barbed wire, stone, wood, or whatever. But, internally, you don’t have fences. You basically program “electronic” polygons, if you will, based upon the current year’s pattern of rainfall, pattern of poisonous weed growth, pattern of endangered species growth, and whatever other variables will affect your current year’s management decisions. Then you can use the virtual polygon to either include or exclude animals from areas on the landscape that you want to manage with scalpel-like precision.
To go back to my first example, you could be driving your property in your air-conditioned truck and you notice a spot that received rain in the recent past and that has a flush of highly nutritious plants that would otherwise be lost. Well, you can get on your laptop, right then and there, and program the polygon that contains your cows to move spatially and temporally over the landscape to this “better location.” Instead of having to build a fence or take the time and manpower to gather your cows, you would simply move the virtual fence.
This video clip shows two cows (the red and green dots) in a virtual paddock that was programmed to move across the landscape at 1.1 m/hr, using Dean Anderson’s directional virtual fencing technology.
It’s like those join-the-dots coloring books — you end up with a bunch of coordinates that you connect to build a fence. And you can move the polygon that the animals are in over in that far corner of the pasture. You simply migrate it over, amoeba-like, to fit in this new area.
You basically have real-time management, which is something that is not currently possible in livestock grazing, even with all of the technologies that we have. If you take that concept of being able to manage in real time and you tie it with those sixty-eight other things that have been found useful, you can start to see the benefit that is potentially possible.
Twilley: The other thing that I thought was curious, which I picked up on from your publications, is this idea that perhaps you might not be out on the land in your air-conditioned pickup, and instead you might actually be doing this through remote sensing. Is that possible?
Dean Anderson’s NMSU colleague, remote sensing scientist Andrea Laliberte, accompanied by ARS technicians Amy Slaughter and Connie Maxwell, prepare to launch an unmanned aerial vehicle from a catapult at the Jornada Experimental Range. Photograph USDA/ARS.
Anderson: Definitely. Currently we have a very active program here on the Jornada Experimental Range in landscape ecology using unmanned aerial vehicle reconnaissance. I see this research as fitting hand-in-glove with virtual fencing. However — and this is very important — all of these whiz-bang technologies are potentially great, but in the hands of somebody who is basically lazy, which is all human beings, or even in the hands of somebody who just does not understand the plant-animal interface, they could create huge problems.
If you don’t have people out on the landscape who know the difference between overstocking and under-stocking, then I will want to change my last name in the latter years of my life, because I don’t want to be associated with the train wreck — I mean a major train wreck — that could happen through using this technology. If you can be sitting in your office in Washington D.C. and you program cows to move on your ranch in Montana, and you don’t have anybody out on the ground in Montana monitoring what is taking place …. [shakes head] You could literally destroy rangeland.
We know that electronics are not infallible. We also know that satellite imagery needs to be backed up by somebody on the ground who can say, “Wow, we’ve got a problem here, because what the electronic data are saying does not match what I’m seeing.”
This is the thing that scares me the most about this methodology. If people decouple the best computer that we have at this point, which is our brain, with sufficient experience, from knowing how to optimise this wonderful tool, then we will have a potential for disaster that will be horrid.
NMSU and USDA ARS scientists prepare to launch their vegetation surveying UAV from a catapult. Photograph USDA/ARS.
Twilley: One of the things I was imagining as I looked at your work was that, as we become an increasingly urban society, maybe farmers could still manage rural land remotely, from their new homes in the city.
Anderson: They can, but only if they also have someone on the ground who has the knowledge and experience to ground-truth the data — to look at it and say, “The data saying that this number of cows should be in this polygon for this many days are accurate” — or not.
You need that flexibility, and you always need to ground-truth. The only way you can get optimum results, in my opinion, is to have someone who is trained in the basics of range science and animal science, to know when the numbers are good and when the numbers are lousy. Electronics simply provide numbers.
Now, you’re right, we are getting smarter at developing technology that can interpret those numbers. I work with colleagues in virtual fencing research who are basically trying to model what an animal does, so that they can actually predict where the animal is going to move before the animal actually moves. In my opinion if they ever figure that out, it’s going to be way past my lifetime.
Still, if you look at range science, it’s an art as well as science. I think it’s great that we have these technologies and I think we should use them. But we shouldn’t put our brain in a box on a table and say, “OK. We no longer need that.” Human judgment and expertise on the ground is still essential to making a methodology like this be a positive, rather than a negative, for landscape ecology.
Drawings from Anderson’s patent #7753007 for an “Ear-a-round equipment platform for animals.”
Manaugh: I’m curious about the bovine interface. How do you interface with the cow in order to stimulate the behaviour that you want?
Anderson: I think that basically my whole career has been focused on trying to adopt innate animal behaviours to accomplish management goals in the most efficient and effective ways possible.
Here’s what I mean by that. I can guarantee that, if a sound that is unknown and unpleasant to the three of us happens over on that side of the room, we’re not going to go toward it. We’re going to get through that door on the other side as quickly as possible.
What I’m doing is taking something that’s innate across the animal world. If you stimulate an animal with something unknown, then, at least initially, it’s going to move away from it. If the event is also accompanied by an unpleasant ending experience and the sequence of events leading up to the unpleasant event are repeatable and predictable, after a few sequential experiences of these events, animals will try and avoid the ending event — if they’re given the opportunity. This is the principle that has allowed the USDA to receive a patent on this methodology.
The thing, first of all, about our technique is that it’s not a one-size-fits-all. In other words, there are animals that you could basically look at cross-eyed and they’ll move, and then there are animals like me, where you’ve got to get a 2×6 and hit them up across the head to get their attention before anything happens.
When these kinds of systems have been built for dog training or dog containment in the past, they simply had a shock, or sometimes a sound first and then a shock. The stimulus wasn’t graded according to proximity or the animal’s personality.
Dean Anderson draws the route of a wandering cow approaching a virtual fence in order to show Venue how his DVF™ system works.
[stands up and draws on whiteboard] Let’s say that this is the polygon that we want the animal to stay in. If we are going to build a conventional fence, we would put a barbed wire fence or some enclosure around that polygon. In our system, we build a virtual belt, which in the diagrams is shaded from blue to red. The blue is a very innocuous sound, almost like a whisper. Moving closer to the edge of the polygon, into the red zone, I ramp that whisper up to the sound of a 747 at full throttle takeoff. I can have the sound all the way from very benign up to pretty irritating. At the top end, it’s as if a fire alarm went off in here — we’re going to get out, because it sounds terrible.
This video clip captures the first-time response of a cow instrumented with Dean Anderson’s directional virtual fencing electronics when encountering a static virtual fence, established using GPS technology.
I’ve based the sounds and stimuli that I’ve used on what we know about cow hearing. Cows and humans are similar, but not identical. These cues were developed to fit the animal that we are trying to manage.
Now, if we go back to me as the example, I’m very stubborn. I need a little higher level of irritation to change my behaviour. We chose to use electric stimulation.
I used myself as the test subject to develop the scale we’re using on this. My electronics guys were too smart. They wouldn’t touch the electrodes. I’m just a dumb biologist, so…
Diagram showing how directional virtual fencing operates. The black-and-white dashed line (8) shows where a conventional fence would be placed. A magnetometer in the device worn on the cow’s head determines the animal’s angle of approach. A GPS system in the device detects when the animal wanders into the 200m-wide virtual boundary band. Algorithms then combine that data to determine which side of the animal’s to cue, and at what intensity. From Dean M. Anderson’s 2007 paper, “Virtual Fencing: Past, Present, and Future” (PDF).
If I’m the animal and I’m getting closer and closer to the edge of the polygon, then the electrodes that are in the device will send an electrical stimulation. In terms of what those stimulations felt like to me, the first level is about like hitting the crazy bone in your elbow. The next one is like scooting across this floor in your socks and touching a doorknob — that kind of static shock. The final one is like taking and stopping your gas-powered lawnmower by grabbing the spark plug barehanded.
What we did was cannibalise a Hot-Shot that some people buy and use to move animals down chutes. I touched the Hot-Shot output and I could still feel it in my fingertips the next morning, so we cut it right down for our version
As the cow moves toward the virtual fence perimeter, it goes from a very benign to a fairly irritating set of sensory cues, and if they’re all on at their highest intensity , it’s very irritating. It’s the 747s combined with the spark plug. Now, back from your eighth-grade geometry, you know that you have an acute angle and you have an obtuse angle. As the cow approaches a virtual fence boundary, we send the cues on the acute side, to direct her away from the boundary as quickly and with as little amount of irritation as possible. If we tried to move the cow by cuing the obtuse side, she would have had to move deeper into the irritation gradient before being able to exit it.
We don’t want to overstress the animal. So we end up, either in distance or time or both, having a point at which, if this animal decides it really wants what’s over here, it’s not going to be irritated to the point of going nuts. We have built-in, failsafe ways that, if the animal doesn’t respond appropriately, we are not going to do anything that would cause negative animal welfare issues.
Heart rate profile (beats per minute) of an 8-year-old free-ranging cross-bred beef cow before, during, and after an audio plus electric stimulation cue from a directional virtual fencing device. The cue was delivered at 0653 h. The second spike was not due to DVF cues; the cow was observed standing near drinking water during this time. From Dean M. Anderson’s 2007 paper, “Virtual Fencing: Past, Present, and Future” (PDF).
The key is, if you can do the job with a tack hammer, don’t get a sledgehammer. This is part of animal welfare, which is absolutely the overarching umbrella under which directional virtual fencing was developed. There’s no need to stimulate an animal beyond what it needs. I can tell you that when I put heart rate monitors on cows wearing my DVF™ devices. I actually found more of a spike in their heart rates when a flock of birds flew over than when I applied the sound.
Now, there are going to be some animals that you either get your rifle and then put the product in your freezer, or you go put the animal back into a four-strand barbed wire fenced pasture. Not every animal on the face of the earth today would be controllable with virtual fencing. You could gradually increase the number of animals that do adapt well to being managed using virtual fencing in your herd through culling.
But the vast majority of animals will react to these irritations, at some level. They can choose at which point they react, all the way from the whisper to the lawnmower.
Diagram showing two cows responding differently to the virtual boundary: Cow 4132 (in green) penetrates the boundary zone more deeply, tolerating a greater degree of irritation before turning around. From Dean M. Anderson’s 2007 paper, “Virtual Fencing: Past, Present, and Future” (PDF).
Here is the other thing: We all learn. Whatever we do to animals, we are teaching them something. It’s our choice as to what we want them to learn.
Of course, I don’t have data from a huge population that I can talk about. But, of the animals with whom I have worked — and the literature would support what I’m going to say — cows are, in fact smarter than human beings in a number of ways. If I give you the story of the first virtual fencing device that I built, I think you’ll see why I say that.
What our team did initially was cannibalise a kids’ remote control car to send a signal to the device worn by the animal. I had a Hereford/Angus cross cow, and she was a smart old girl. I started to cue her. I was close to her and she responded to the cues exactly the way I wanted her to. But she figured out, in less than five tries, that, if she kept twenty-five feet between me and her, I could press a button, and nothing would happen. I tried to follow her all over the field. She just kept that distance ahead of me for the rest of the trial — always more than twenty-five feet!
So that’s the reason why we are using GPS satellites to define the perimeter of the polygon. You can’t get away from that line.
A cow being fitted with an early prototype of Dean Anderson’s Ear-A-Round DVF device. Photograph via USDA Jornada Experimental Range, AP.
What sets DVF™ apart from other virtual fencing approaches is that it’s not a one-size-fits-all. The cues are ramped, and the irritating cues are bilaterally applied, so we can make it directional, to steer the animals — no pun intended — over the landscape.
What’s interesting is that if you have the capacity to build a polygon, you can encompass a soil type, a vegetation situation, a poisonous plant, or whatever, much better than you can if you have to build a conventional fence. In building conventional fences, you have to have stretch posts every time you change the fence’s direction. That increases both materials and labor costs in construction, which is why you see many more rectangular paddocks than multi-sided polygons. Right now, you can assume that, on flat country, about fifty percent of the cost in a conventional fence is labour, and the other fifty percent is material.
Twilley: Which raises another question: Is virtual fencing cost-effective?
Anderson: It depends. I’ll give you an example to show what I mean. The US Forest Service over in Globe, Arizona, is interested in possibly using virtual fencing. Some of the mining companies over there have leases that say that before they extract the ore, and even after, the surface may be leased to people with livestock.
That country over there is pretty much like a bunch of Ws put together. In March 2012, for two-and-a-half miles of four-strand barbed wire, using T posts, they were given a quote of $63,000.
That’s why they called me. [laughs]
Now, if that was next to a road, even if it cost $163,000 for those two-and-a half miles of fence, it would be essential, in my opinion, that they not think about virtual fencing — not in this day and time.
In twenty years from now — somewhere in this century, at least — after the ethical and moral issues have been worked out, instead of stimulating animals with external audio sound or electrical stimulation, I think we will actually be stimulating internally at the neuronal level. At that point, virtual fencing may approach one hundred percent effective control.
The DARPA “Robo Rat,” whose movements could be directly controlled by three electrodes inserted into its brain; photograph via.
It’s been done with rodents. The idea was that these animals could be equipped with a camera or other sensors and sent into earthquake areas or fires or where there were environmental issues that humans really shouldn’t be exposed to. Of course, even if it can be done scientifically, there are still issues in terms of animal welfare. What if there is a radiation leak? Do you send rodents into it? You can see the moral and ethical issues that need to be worked out.
Twilley: If that ever becomes a real-world application, will you sell your shares in U.S. Steel?
Anderson: [laughs] I have a feeling that we never will have a landscape devoid of visible boundaries. If nothing else, I want a barbed wire fence between Ted Turner’s ranch and our experimental ranch up the road here. With a visible boundary, there’s no question — this side is mine and that side is yours.
Fencing photograph via InformedFarmers.com. Incidentally, Ted Turner’s Vermejo ranch in New Mexico and southern Colorado is said to be the largest privately-owned, contiguous tract of land in the United States.
Twilley: Aha — so it’s the human animals that will still need a physical fence.
Anderson: I think so. Otherwise you’re looking at the landscape and there’s absolutely nothing out there — whether it be to define ownership or use or even health or safety hazards.
Manaugh: Do you think this kind of virtual fencing would have any impact on real estate practices? For example, I could imagine multiple ranchers marbling their usage of a larger, shared plot of land with this ability to track and contain their herds so precisely. Could virtual fencing thus change the way land is controlled, owned, or leased amongst different groups of people?
Anderson: If you were to go down here to the Boot Heel area of New Mexico you could find exactly that: individual ranchers are pooling areas to form a grass bank for their common use.
Anything that I can do in my profession to encourage flexibility, I figure I’m doing the correct thing. That’s where this all came from. It never made sense to me that we use static tools to manage dynamic resources. You learn from day one in all of your ecology classes and animal science classes that you are dealing with multiple dynamic systems that you are trying to optimise in relationship to each other. It was a mental disconnect for me, as an undergraduate as well as a graduate student, to understand how you could effectively manage dynamic resources with a static fence.
Now, there are some interesting additional things you learn with this system. For example, believe it or not, animals have laterality. You probably didn’t see the article that I published last year on sheep laterality. [laughter]
USDA ARS scientists testing cattle laterality in a T-Maze. Photograph by Scott Bauer for the USDA ARS.
Twilley and Manaugh: No.
Anderson: Our white-faced sheep, which have Rambouillet and Polypay genetics, were basically right-handed. You’ll want to take a look at the data, of course, but, basically, animals are no different than you and I. There are animals that have a preference to turn right and others that have a preference to turn left.
Now, I didn’t do this study to waste government money. Think about it in terms of what I have told you about applying the cues bilaterally. If I know that my tendency is right-handed, then in order to get me to go left, I may need a higher level of stimulation on my right side than I would if you were trying to get me to go right by applying a stimulus on my left side, because it’s against my natural instincts.
With the computer technology we have today, everything we do can be stored in memory, so you can learn about each animal, and modify your stimulus accordingly. There is no reason at all that we cannot design the algorithms and gather data that, over time, will make the whole process optimised for each animal, as well as for the herd and the landscape.
Cow equipped with a collar-mounted GPS device; photography by Dave Ganskoop for the USDA ARS.
Twilley: Going back to something you said earlier about animal memory — and this may be too speculative a question to answer — I’m curious as to how dynamic virtual fencing affects how cows perceive the landscape.
Anderson: The question would be whether, if the virtual fence is on or near a particular rock, or a telephone pole, or a stream, and they have had electrical stimulation there before, do they associate that rock or whatever with a limit boundary? In other words, do they correlate visual landmarks with the virtual fence? Based on some non-published data I have collected, the answer is yes.
In fact, to give some context, there have been studies published showing that for a number of days following removal of an electric fence, cattle would still not cross the line where it had been located.
So this could indeed be an issue with virtual fencing, but — and my research on this topic is still very preliminary — I have not seen a problem yet, and I don’t think I will. Part of the reason is that cows want to eat, so if the polygon that contains the animals is programmed to move toward good forage, the cows will follow. It’s almost like a moving feed bunk, if you will. I’m sure that, in time — I would almost bet money on this — that if you were using the virtual fence to move animals toward better forage, you could almost eliminate the virtual fence line behind the animals, especially if the drinking water was kept near the “moving feed bunk.”
The other thing is that the consumer-level GPS receivers I have used in my DVF™ devices do not have the capability to have the fixes corrected using DGPS, which means that the fix may actually vary from the “true” boundary by as much as the length of a three-quarter ton pick-up. That’s to my benefit, because there is never an exact line where that animal is sure to be cued and hence the animal cannot match a particular stone or other environmental object with the stimulation event even if the virtual boundary is held static. It’s always going to be just in the general area.
Manaugh: So imprecision is actually helpful to you.
Anderson: Yes, I believe so — although I don’t have enough data that I would want to stand on a podium and swear to that. But I think the variability in that GPS signal could be an advantage for virtual paddocks that spatially and temporally move over the landscape.
Twilley: We’ve talked about optimising utilisation and remote management, but are we missing some of the other ways that virtual fencing might transform the way we manage livestock or the land?
Anderson: Ideas that we know are good, but are simply too labour-intensive right now, will become reasonable. The big thing that has been in vogue for some time — and it still is, in certain places — is rotational stocking. The idea is that you take your land and divide it into many small paddocks and move animals through these paddocks, leaving the animals in any one paddock for only a few hours or days. It’s a great idea under certain situations, but think of the labour of building and maintaining all those fences, not to mention moving the animals in and out of different paddocks all the time.
With the virtual paddock you can just program the polygon to move spatially and temporally over the landscape. Even the shape of the virtual paddock can be dynamic in time and space as well. It can be slowed down where there’s abundant forage, and sped up where forage is limited so you have a completely dynamic, flexible system in which to manage free-ranging animals.
Here’s another thing. Like anybody who gathers free-ranging animals, I have a song I use. My song is pretty benign and can be sung among mixed audiences. [sings] “Come on sweetheart, let’s go. Come on. Come on. Come on, girls. Let’s go.”
In this video clip, a cow-calf pair are moved using only voice cues (Dean Anderson’s gathering song) delivered from directional virtual fencing (DVF™) electronics carried by the cows on an ear-a-round (EAR™) system.
That’s the way I talk to them, if I want them to move. One day when I was out manually gathering my cows on an ATV I put a voice-activated recorder in my pocket and recorded my song. We later transferred the sounds of my manual gathering into the DVF™ device. Then when we wanted to gather the animals we wirelessly activated the DVF™ electronics and my “song” — “Come on, girls, let’s go” — began to play. Instead of a negative irritation, this was a positive cuing — and it worked.
The cows moved to the corral based on the cue, without me actually being present to manually gather them — it was an autonomous gather.
I think this type of thing also points to a paradigm shift in how we manage livestock. Sure, I can get my animals up in the middle of night to move them, but why do that? Why not try to manage on cow time, rather than our own egotistical needs — “At eight o’clock, I want these cows in so I can brand them,” or whatever. Why not mesh management routines with their innate behaviours instead? For example, my song could maybe be matched to correspond to a general time of day when the animals might start drifting in to drink water, anyway.
Twilley: I see — it’s a feedback loop where you’re cuing behaviour with the GPS collars, but you’re also gathering data. You can see where they are already heading and change your management accordingly.
Anderson: Absolutely. You are matching needs and possibilities.
Manaugh: To make this work, does every animal have to be instrumented?
Anderson: This is a very valid question, but my answer varies. All the research needed to answer this question is not in, and the answers depend on the specific situation being addressed. I have a lot of people right now who are calling me and asking for a commercial device that they can put on their animals because they are losing them to theft. With the price of livestock where it is currently, cattle-rustling is not a thing of the nineteenth century. It is going on as we speak.
If that’s your challenge, then you’re going to need some kind of electronic gadgetry on every animal for absolute bookkeeping. For me, the challenge is how do you manage a large, extensive landscape in ways that we can’t do now, and I don’t think we necessarily need to instrument every animal for virtual fencing to be effective.
Instead, if you’ve got a hundred cows, you need to ask: which of those cows should you put instruments on? As a producer, you probably have a pretty good idea which animals should be instrumented and why: you would look for the leaders in the group.
Position of two cows grazing similar pastures in Montana, recorded every ten minutes over a two-week period. The difference in their grazing patterns reveal one cow to be a hill climber and one to be a bottom dweller. Image form a USDA Rangeland Management publication (PDF) co-authored by Derek Bailey, NMSU.
What’s interesting is that there are cows that prefer foraging up on top of hills. There are others that prefer being down in a riparian area. A colleague of mine at New Mexico State University, calls them bottom dwelling and hill climbing cows and this spatial foraging characteristic apparently has heritability. So it’s possible that you could select animals that fit your specific landscape. If, as I mentioned earlier, the ease with which an animal can be controlled by sensory cues also has heritability, it seems logical to assume that you could create hightech designer animals tailored to your piece of land.
Now, when you start adding all of these things together, using these electronic gadgetries and really leveraging innate behaviours, it points to a revolution in animal management — a revolution with really powerful potential to help us become much better stewards of the landscape.
This photograph shows a worm fence, an American invention. It was the most widely built fence type in the US through the 1870s, until Americans ran out of readily accessible forests, triggering a “fence crisis,” in which the costs of fencing exceeded the value of the land it enclosed. The “crisis” was averted by the invention of mass-produced woven wire in the late 1800s. Photograph from the USDA History Collection, Special Collections, National Agricultural Library.
Twilley: None of this is commercially available yet, though, right?
Anderson: That’s true — you cannot go out today and buy a commercial DVF™ system, or for that matter any kind of virtual fence unit designed specifically for livestock, to the best of my knowledge. But there is a company that is interested in our patent and they are trying to get something off the ground. I’m trying to feed this company any information that I can, though I am not legally allowed to participate in the development of their product as a federal employee.
Manaugh: What are some of the obstacles to commercial availability?
Anderson: The largest immediate challenge I see is answering the question of how you power electronics on free-ranging animals for extended periods of time. We have tried solar and it has potential. I think one of the most exciting things, though, is kinetic energy. I understand that there are companies working on a technology to be used in cellphones that will charge the cell phone simply by the action of lifting it out of your purse or pocket, and the Army has got several things going on now with backpacks for soldiers that recharge electronic communication equipment as a result of a soldier’s walking movement.
I don’t think the economics warrant animal agriculture developing any of these power technologies independently, but I think we can capitalise on that being developed in other, more lucrative industries and then simply adapt it for our needs. When I developed the concept of DVF™ I designed it to be a plug-and-pray device. As soon as somebody developed a better component, I would throw my thing out and plug theirs in—and pray that it would improve performance. Sometimes it did and sometimes it didn’t!
Anderson: That’s an interesting suggestion that I have not looked into. However, I have though a lot about capturing kinetic energy. If you watch a cow, their ears are always moving, and so are their tails. If we can capture any of that movement….
The other thing we need is demand from the market. In 2007, I was invited to the UK to discuss virtual fencing — the folks in London were more interested in virtual fencing than anybody else I have ever talked to in the world.
The reason was really interesting. England has a historic tradition of common land, which is basically open “green space” that surrounds the city and was originally used for grazing by people who had one or two sheep or cows. Nowadays, it’s mostly used by dog walkers, pony riders — for recreation, basically. The problem is that they need livestock back on these landscapes so certain herbaceous vegetation does not threaten some of the woody species. However, none of the present-day users want conventional fencing because of the gates that would have to be opened and shut to contain the animals. So they were interested in virtual fencing as a way to get the ecology back into line using domestic herbivores, in a landscape that needs to be shared with pony riders and dog walkers who don’t want to shut gates and might not do it reliably, anyway.
But it’s an interesting question. I’ve had some sleepless nights, up at two in the morning wondering, “Why is it not being embraced?” I think that a lot of it comes strictly down to economics.
I don’t know, at this point, what a setup would cost. But, in my opinion, there are ways we could implement this immediately and have it be very viable. You wouldn’t have every animal instrumented. You can have single-hop technology, so information uploads and downloads at certain points the animals come to with reliable periodicity — the drinking water or the mineral supplement, say. That’s not real-time, of course — but it’s near real-time. And it would be a quantum leap compared to how we currently manage livestock.
Barbed wire, patented by Illinois farmer Joseph Glidden in 1874, opened up the American prairie for large-scale farming. Photograph by Tiago Fioreze, Wikipedia.
Twilley: What do the farmers themselves think of this system?
Anderson: What I’ve heard from some ranchers is something along the lines of: “I’ve already got fences and they work fine. Why do I need this unproven new technology?”
On the other hand, dairy farmers who have automatic milking parlours, which allow animals to come in on their own volition to get milked, think virtual fencing would be very appropriate for their type of operation, for reasons of convenience rather than economics.
Robotic milking parlour; photograph via its manufacturer, DeLaval.
Now, let me tell you what I think might actually work. I think that environmentalists could actually be very beneficial in pushing this forward. Take a situation where you have an endangered bird species that uses the bank of a stream for nesting or reproduction. Under current conditions, the rancher can’t realistically afford to fence out a long corridor along a stream just for that two-week period. That’s a place where virtual fencing is a tool that would allow us to do the best ecological management in the most cost-effective way.
But the larger point is that we cannot afford to manage twenty-first century agriculture using grandpa’s tools, economically, sociologically, and biologically.
Some people have said, “Well, I think you are just ahead of your time with this stuff.” I’m not sure that’s true. In any case, in my personal opinion, if I’m not doing the research that looks twenty years out into future before it’s adopted, then I’m doing the wrong kind of research. In 2005, Gallagher, one of the world’s leading builders of electric fences, invited me to talk about virtual fencing. During that conversation, they told me that they believe that, by the middle of this century, virtual fencing will be the fencing of choice.
But here’s the thing: none of us have gone to the food counter and found it empty. When you have got a full stomach, the things that maybe should be looked at for that twenty-year gap are often not on the radar screen. As long as the barbed wire fences haven’t rusted out completely, the labour costs can be tolerated, and the environmental legislation hasn’t become mandatory, then why spend money? That’s human nature. You only do what you have to do and not much more.
The point is that it’s going to take a number of sociological and economic factors, in my opinion, for this methodology of animal control to be implemented by the market. But speaking technologically, we could go out with an acceptable product in eighteen months, I believe. It wouldn’t have multi-hop technology. It would equal the quality of the first automobile rather than being comparable to a Rolls Royce in terms of “extras” — that would have to await a later date in this century.
And here’s another idea: I think that there ought to be a tax on every virtual fencing device that is sold or every lease agreement that’s signed in the developed world. That tax would go to help developing countries manage their free-ranging livestock using this methodology because that’s where we need to be better stewards of the landscape and where we as a world would all benefit from transforming some of today’s manual labour into cognitive labour.
Herding cattle the old-fashioned way on the Jornada Experimental Range; photograph by Peggy Greb for USDA ARS.
Maybe with this technology, a third-world farmer could put a better thatched roof on his house or send his kids to school, because he doesn’t need their manual laboir down on the farm. It’s fun for a while to be out on a horse watching the cows; what made the West and Hollywood famous were the cowboys singing to their cows. I love that; that’s why I’m in this profession. Still, I’m not a sociologist, but it seems as though you could take some of that labour that is currently used managing livestock in developing countries and all of the time it requires and you could transfer it into things that would enhance human well-being and education.
It’s in our own interest, too. If non-optimal livestock management is creating ecological sacrifice areas, where soil is lost when the rains come or the wind blows, that particulate matter doesn’t stop at national boundaries.
I always say that virtual fencing is going to be something that causes a paradigm shift in the way we think, rather than just being a new tool to keep doing things in the same old way. That’s the real opportunity.
IMAGE: Ministry of Defence Main Building, photograph by JoanneB via Wikipedia.
Like the Pentagon, its better-known counterpart in the United States, Britain’s Ministry of Defence building is a fairly mundane, if gigantic, office block camouflaging a much more exciting subterranean realm of secret tunnels, bunkers, and — at least in the MoD’s case — a perfectly preserved Tudor wine cellar.
IMAGE: Henry VIII’s wine cellar, photograph by Nicola Twilley. The cellar is apparently occasionally used to host Ministry of Defence dinners and receptions, but is otherwise off-limits to the public other than by special request.
This stone-ribbed, brick-vaulted undercroft was built in the early 1500s by Cardinal Wolsey, as part of a suite of lavish improvements to York Place, the Westminster residence of the archbishops of York since the thirteenth century. The additions, which also included a gallery, presence chamber, and armoury, were intended to make York Place into a palace splendid enough to host the King. They succeeded well beyond Wolsey’s intentions: when Wolsey fell from favour, due to his inability to secure the papal annulment Henry VIII needed in order to marry Anne Boleyn, the King decided to move in.
IMAGE: Whitehall Palace, circa 1670s. Painting by Hendrik Danckerts. The Bridgeman Art Library, via the BBC.
IMAGE: Fisher’s ground plan of the Palace of Whitehall in London in 1680, showing the wine cellar north of the Great Hall, via Wikipedia.
York Place became the Palace of Whitehall, the principal residence of the English monarchy in London for nearly two hundred years, and Wolsey’s expansive cellar (he apparently received the first delivery of Champagne ever exported to England) became King Henry VIII’s Wine Cellar, the name by which it is still known today.
Curious as to how a Tudor wine cellar had become entangled in the bowels of Britain’s military headquarters, I left a message on the Ministry of Defence switchboard to see whether it might be possible to visit. To my surprise, a charming officer called me back straightaway, and told me that he’d be happy to escort me as he was quite keen to see the wine cellar himself, having regularly passed signage for it on his way to the gym.
IMAGE: The exterior of Henry VIII’s wine cellar in the MoD basement, photograph by Nicola Twilley.
We met at reception, passed through an airlock, and took a series of narrow back staircases and corridors to arrive at the large, fluourescent-lit concrete void in which Henry VIII’s cellar now floats, umbilically attached to its new host by a large aluminium HVAC duct.
IMAGE: The exterior of Henry VIII’s wine cellar in the MoD basement, photograph by Nicola Twilley.
IMAGE: The exterior of Henry VIII’s wine cellar in the MoD basement, photograph by Nicola Twilley.
In 1698, laundry left to dry over an open fire started a blaze that burned the Palace of Whitehall to the ground. It was never rebuilt, and the land was leased, first for townhouses in the eighteenth century, and then, when Parliament decided to centralise the major departments of state in the 1850s, for purpose-built government offices. The wine cellar remained intact but largely forgotten until the War Office, which later became the Ministry of Defence, began work on a new building in the 1930s.
IMAGE: Interior of Henry VIII’s Wine Cellar. Photograph by Nicola Twilley.
IMAGE: Brick vaulting, Henry VIII’s Wine Cellar. Photograph by Nicola Twilley.
Writing in a 2010 issue of the AA Files Andrew Crompton describes the design of the poetically named MoD Main Building, which was “so slow in coming out of the ground that it became know as the Whitehall Monster.” In addition to the understandable delay caused by World War Two, Crompton ascribes its astonishing twenty-one year construction to the fact that the MoD Monster has “embedded within it a series of spaces that seem to have more to do with sympathetic magic than functional architecture.”
Included among these embedded spaces are a Gothic crypt, a crooked staircase that leads nowhere, “five very fine eighteenth-century interiors” — the first ever preserved outside of a museum — and, of course, Henry VIII’s long-lost wine cellar.
IMAGE: Interior of Henry VIII’s Wine Cellar. The barrels are historical reconstructions to represent how wine was stored in Tudor times. Henry VIII’s court consumed something like 300 barrels of wine each year, mostly exported from France and delivered to the palace by river. Interestingly, the wine was drunk very young by today’s standards — an August harvest might be on the table by November — and it was carefully blended with water, honey, and spices to mask its increasing sourness, as half-drunk casks allowed air into contact with the wine, which gradually oxidised into vinegar. Photograph by Nicola Twilley.
Incorporating the wine cellar into the new building was not simply a matter of building around it. In the intervening years, the road level had sunk, leaving the cellar half-exposed above ground. To make matters worse, the cellar did not sit entirely within the footprint of the Ministry of Defence building, but instead protruded slightly from its western edge, obstructing the proposed route of the new Horse Guards Avenue.
An interpretive panel on a ramp outside the cellar explained that the “decision was made to keep the Cellar on its historic site” — more or less – but that, due to the softness of the Tudor bricks, the seventy-feet long, thirty-feet wide structure could not simply be dismantled and reassembled a few feet lower down and further west. Instead, the general contractors, Trollope and Colis, “embalmed the Cellar in protective layers of concrete, steel and brick and placed it on mahogany cushions, carriage rails and steel rollers.”
The structure was moved 43.6 feet to one side onto a specially designed steel frame and a 20ft hole was then dug on its original site. The 1000-ton building was then lowered on screw jacks and then moved back 33 ft 10 inches to its present position. This prodigious piece of engineering skill was completed without any damage to the structure.
IMAGE: Interior of Henry VIII’s Wine Cellar. Photograph by Nicola Twilley.
Nineteen feet down and nine feet to the west of its original site, Henry VIII’s cellar floats incongruously in the labyrinthine concrete sub-basements of the Ministry of Defence like some kind of gallstone, the crystallized accretion of the site’s history. And thus this last fragment of Henry VIII’s splendid palace lies, preserved by burial, alongside hidden bunkers that anticipate nuclear apocalypse, and, of course, the Ministry of Defense gym.
When it was built in Chicago’s meatpacking district at the start of the 1920s, Fulton Market Cold Storage Company was touted as “an example of the very highest development in cold storage warehouse design.”
IMAGE: Fulton Market Cold Storage Company advertisement from 1921, featured in California Fruit News, Volume 64, Issue 1722.
At the time, the natural ice trade was losing ground fast to the wonders of mechanical refrigeration, as the technology became more reliable and its costs came down. The Fulton Market Cold Storage Company’s proximity to railway lines and its imposing structure — an architectural hybrid of bank and armoury — were enough to overcome most doubters, although the ammonia absorption system then in use was prone to leaks and explosions, hence the advertisement’s insistence that the building is fireproof and fitted with automatic sprinkling systems.
IMAGE: Butter at Fulton Market Cold Storage plant, 1941. Photo by John Vachon, via the Library of Congress.
Today, those ten storeys served by fast elevators are an obstacle to profitable cold storage operation, rather than an asset. Refrigerated warehouses make their money on turnover, and the extra time and labour required to load and stack individual boxes of chilled foods, as opposed to fork-lifting standardised pallets onto racks, cuts into a profit margin that is already suffering from the higher energy costs that come along with an old, patchworked-together cooling system and less efficient insulation.
IMAGE: Eggs in storage at Fulton Market Cold Storage, 1941. Photo by John Vachon, via the Library of Congress.
IMAGE: Fulton Market Cold Storage Company. Photo by Brule Laker.
IMAGE: Fulton Market Cold Storage redevelopment renderings via Curbed Chicago.
Before work could start on the makeover, however, the building had to be defrosted. Nine decades of cold storage, combined with a lack of maintenance as the building ran at one-third capacity over the last five years, had left its interior encrusted with ice.
Architects Perkins + Will, who are turning two floors into a machine shop, workspace, and indoor cycling track for a bike gear company, posted some astonishing “before” photographs alongside a timelapse video made by the developers as they brought in propane heaters to dissolve the building’s delicate crystalline surfaces and jagged icicles.
The images are utterly breathtaking, framing the inverted winter that is our national cryosphere as an enchanted, sparkling grotto, rather than the gleaming aseptic geometries of contemporary logistics space.
IMAGE: Struthiomimus altus, an ornithomimid from the Late Cretaceous, as illustrated by Nobu Tamura.
In consultation with David Varricchio, a professor of paleontology at Montana State University, journalist Erin Berger surveyed the megafauna of a pre-human epoch with the flavour preferences of a twenty-first century American consumer in mind. Her conclusion: An “ostrich-like dinosaur known as an ornithomimid would probably yield the most consumer-friendly cut of meat, while still maintaining a unique dinosaur taste.”
Extrapolating from the corn-fed beef that forms the majority of U.S. meat intake today, Berger and Varricchio assume that carnivorous or pescatarian dinosaurs would taste too gamey or fishy to meet with contemporary approval. After all, an animal’s diet plays the most significant role in determining its flavour profile as meat — not to mention its overall healthiness:
“When people ask me if a T-Rex would be good, well, I don’t think so,” David Varricchio [...] says. “They’ve found jaw abnormalities that suggest they were eating fetid meat and had diseases that came about from prey items. They would be pretty parasite-laden.”
The type of activity that a dinosaur typically engaged in would also affect its flavour, with fast-twitch muscles resulting in white meat, and slow-twitch muscles, of the sort required for longer periods of steady motion, producing iron-rich red meat. Finally, the anatomy of the dinosaur would determine whether it would yield cuts of a satisfactory size and shape. Armoured tails “would probably be a lot of good white meat,” Varricchio tells Berger, while the long, muscular necks of tree-grazing sauropods would yield “a unique cut of sturdy red meat weighing several tons” that might well be considered a delicacy.
Ornithomimosaurs were large-thighed runners who, due to a lack of teeth, dined solely on plant matter. According to Varricchio, who has studied their bone histology, a steak from an ornithomimosaur’s hindquarters “would be a lean, slightly wild-tasting” cut.
Aside from the sheer pleasure of edible speculation, Berger’s piece is an enjoyable reminder that, on some level, the human perspective on the environment — even the pre- or non-human environment — is inevitably filtered through our biologically omnivorous, yet geographically, historically, and culturally adapted palate.