Sat, Sep 23, 2006 - Page 16 News List

What on Earth is man doing?

The Center for Land Use Interpretation dispassionately observes and chronicles humankind's interaction with the Earth's surface

By John Strausbaugh  /  NY TIMES SERVICE , NEW YORK

A site called Desert Center in San Bernardino, California.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In 1957 an Air Force B-36 accidentally dropped a hydrogen bomb onto empty scrubland outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. Although its nuclear payload was unarmed, the bomb's conventional explosives detonated on impact, creating a crater 3.7m deep, dusting the area with plutonium and killing a luckless cow.

There used to be a town in New York state called Neversink. It sank from view in 1953 when the area was flooded to create a reservoir for New York City.

The longest straight stretch of highway in the nation crosses the desert near Barstow, Calif. A road sign advises, "ABSOLUTELY NOTHING NEXT 22 MILES."

Hundreds of sites like these, from the quirky to the quotidian, have been documented by the Center for Land Use Interpretation, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization founded in 1994 with an unusual educational mission. As dispassionately observant as anthropologists or space aliens, the center's staff members and volunteers roam the American landscape, recording and cataloging signs of humanity's interactions with nature. Anything from a trailer park to a strip mine, the Salton Sea to the Erie Canal, a building shaped like a picnic basket to a replica of ground zero for the Oliver Stone film falls within the group's purview.

The approach is a mash-up of geography, geology, environmental studies, art, architecture and history. Occasionally the group's projects betray a Surrealist wit as well. The center once placed a loudspeaker in a lonely Maine forest and broadcast the recorded sound of a tree falling.

More often, though, the center simply documents sites in photographs and descriptive text, letting each place express its own inherent character, be it an oddball tourist attraction like the World O' Tools Museum in Tennessee or an historically curious place like Coon Butte in Arizona Crater, where NASA trained Apollo crews because the area resembled the surface of the moon.

The organization's founder, Matthew Coolidge, studied geomorphology -- the evolution of land masses -- at Boston University. "I'd sit in geography class hearing about braided streams," he recalled in a recent interview. "But when I looked out the window, I didn't see any streams. I saw buses and buildings."

It occurred to him then that a geographer might treat the built environment and the natural landscape as one.

"Increasingly humans are part of the geomorphological process," he said. "There isn't a molecule on the surface of the earth that hasn't passed through some human agent of change. It's unavoidable, don't you think? There are 6 billion of us now. I don't see how we could tread lightly."

Coolidge and a small group of friends founded the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Oakland, California, then moved the office in 1996 to its current home in Los Angeles, next door to a similarly eccentric institution, the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Grants from foundations finance the work of a staff of 10, augmented by volunteers around the country who, Coolidge said, include architects, urban planners, art students and teachers, photographers and "just people interested in what we do."

Overlook, a book edited by Coolidge and Sarah Simons and recently published by Metropolis Books, surveys many of the places that have interested the group over the years. There's a chapter on "show caves," like Howe Caverns in New York and Fantastic Caverns in Missouri, where proprietors amp up the natural subterranean grandeur with colored lights, patriotic music and gift shops. There's a chapter on simulated cities built for military and police training, and one devoted to the geographic, social and psychological centrality of Ohio.

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