Sudbury: An Ongoing Geo-Cosmological Convergence
09.22.2011, 9:13 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Comet 65-P Gunn, image NASA

A 1.85 billion year old geo-cosmological event is still unfolding in Sudbury, Ontario. It began with the crash of the second largest known meteor to impact the Earth, at the precise site where Sudbury now exists. When you visit this distributed and budding city today (population 157,000), it’s still the meteor-created geology that you see and sense as profoundly shaping life here.

Daily life in Sudbury moves in direct relation to very old rock called the Canadian Shield. Scraped bare by glaciers of the last ice age, the Shield is the Earth’s greatest area of exposed Archaean rock. The rocks that provided its basis, before metamorphosing, are mostly from between 4.5 billion and 540 million years ago. The massive semi-circle of ancient stone reminds some of a shield and extends thousands of miles across Canada.

In Sudbury, both the Shield and the crater rim assert themselves. The Shield is visible everywhere in the form of acres of outcrops, freight train sized humps between houses, and protrusions from hillsides.

It is this rock that houses the ore that drives the city’s history, present, and future. Though it is a matter of dispute whether the nickel mined in Sudbury during the last 100+ years is the result of an impact splash from the core of the Earth, or was deposited by the meteor itself, this cosmological event laid deep foundations for life in Sudbury, and for its utterly unique and singular material and cultural realities.

Canadian Shield angles out of the earth outside our hotel window

FOP just spent six days in Sudbury as participants in the Musagetes September Café. Though we have written about Sudbury previously, our online research paled in comparison to the three-dimensional reality of our visit.

Musagetes was an extraordinary host for our introduction to Sudbury. The organization is unique in its approach to addressing issues of communities and landscapes in transition. As Shawn Van Sluys, executive director has written of their work, “Musagetes works in communities where the potential for positive transformation through artistic intervention is greatest–places where a transition is already underway and where socially engaged cultural mediators, artists and institutions are collaborating to bring it about … It believes that there is a greater need than ever for the joy, the delight, the surprise and the power of the arts to radically transform society. By disrupting the predictable, the artistic process can be a powerful transformative agent, one capable of freeing us from the excesses of rationality, order and instrumental reasoning.”

Sudbury’s Big Nickel

The September Café gathered 40+ people including members of the community and visitors from as far away as Croatia. There were architects and artists including Stephanie WhiteIsabelle HayeurAaron Levy, Andrew Hunter and Lisa Hirmer of DodolabKenneth Hayes, and more. We were inspired by the work, words, aesthetic responses, and collective brain-storming that unfolded within the span of a few short days. For most of these days we were swept into a roving caravan of cars that traversed the bowl of the elongated impact crater. By the end of the week we came to think of Greater Sudbury as an inland archipelago, as it is composed of a constellation of small towns that dot the crater’s rim—formed by the meteor’s impact nearly 2 billion years ago.

The experience became a crash-course in geology, mining history, environmental remediation, community planning, cultural history (aboriginal and Francophone to name two)—and particle physics. Conversations unfolded in hotel lobbies, at book launches, over long drives, during dinners, in bush planes, and of course during the orchestrated hours of the Café.

Sudbury’s raison d’être began with mining in early 1900s, which continues today at a lesser scale. But it would be futile to attempt to disentangle contemporary life in Sudbury from its profoundly material, environmental history. A rich and storied mining and labor history provides fodder for artistic intervention, especially when paired with a community beginning to seek broader directions and possibilities. Musagetes, and the artists they collaborate with, will be working in Sudbury for several years.  The Foundation is also supporting the launch of a School of Design within Laurentian University, called Laurentian Architecture.  The School will be attuned to the exceptional forces and challenges that compose this area of Canada.

parking lot at Sudbury’s Dynamic Earth museum, with Inco Superstack and tailings in background

During our time in Sudbury, we came to see the Inco Superstack, erected in 1972, as constituting an ongoing geologic event. The emissions, despite being significantly cleaner than in previous decades, persist 24 hours a day and signal the continuing extraction and rearrangement of earth materials that have shaped reality here for more than a century. Perhaps the view of the stack becomes normalized over time.  But we were new to the area, and its extreme height of 1,250 feet (it is the tallest chimney in the western hemisphere and the second tallest freestanding chimney in the world) afforded us the opportunity to see it everywhere we went. Whether we were taking a walk, attending a session of the Café, having breakfast in the hotel or at dinner downtown, the stack was visible, emitting, and reminding us of its ongoing material impact upon to the land around Sudbury—and beyond. And, this “beyond” became everywhere to us. Through the conversations of the Café we came to realize that pretty much everywhere humans live there is a “superstack” of some kind, bending life and health, economy and community around it. For us in Brooklyn, perhaps it’s the Gowanus Canal or Newtown Creek.  Regardless, there really is no “away” from the effects that such sites present to us all.

Superstack at sunset

One morning, we were out taking photos, hoping to get a sense of the scale and shape of the crater left in the wake of the meteor impact.  But we found all views across the valleys obscured and driving distances longer than anticipated. Eventually, we found ourselves in a satellite town of Sudbury called Copper Cliff, at the foot of the Superstack. Here, where the stack loomed above us on a brilliant and beautiful day, we took a polaroid photo, sun in the background. As the picture developed, we were in awe that the sun, 93 million miles away, had materially imprinted the film, “burning” a black dot into the emulsion. A flare circled the Superstack with its halo.

For us, the image illustrated the intimate connection between cosmological forces, the geologic, and the porous nature of our biosphere. The communication and exchange of material forces between “inside” our planet and “outside” our atmosphere is ongoing. It was from “out there,” after all, that the Sudbury meteorite came and made Sudbury a place where humans want to live today—billions of years later. Through the continuous mining of what the meteor left behind, Sudburians live in intimate relation with this geo-cosmological history. This seems like just one of infinite ways to plumb this history.

Only two days prior to taking the polaroid, we learned of another way humans in Sudbury live out the cosmological realities of this place. As part of the Café itinerary, we were ecstatic to be invited to tour SNOLAB, also known as the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory. SNOLAB is unique. Situated alongside Creighton Mine, it is the world’s deepest underground physics laboratory (depth of 6,800 feet). Here, from deep within the Earth, scientists attempt to detect neutrinos, tiny particles emitted during the death of the star billions of miles away.  At this depth, SNOLAB’s experiments are shielded from cosmic and background radiation that would otherwise contaminate them. Much to our surprise, an elevator malfunctioned, and less than half the Café’s participants made it down to SNOLAB before the tour was cancelled. Those of us left topside were treated a two hour lecture on dark matter by the lab’s director, Nigel Smith.

Nigel’s words: “wherever you find a deep hole you will find a physicist,” reminded us of other deep, excavated spaces that our studio has considered, such as Onkalo in Finland, WIPP in New Mexico, and Yucca Mountain in Nevada. In many ways, our research on deep geologic repositories had been our best preparation for imagining what visiting SNOLAB might have been like. The chance to descend thousands of feet into the Earth and attempt to physically embody the scale, space and materiality of geologic repositories had been a personal interest driving our desire to visit the lab. As far as we know, mines and high-tech labs that burrow to depths that far surpass deep geologic repositories (Creighton Mine aims to be 10,000 feet deep while Onkalo will only be 1,400 feet) have no intention to “last” millions of years. What will become of them is unknowable from here. Apparently, some of the sulfur previously emitted by smelters into the air over Sudbury is now sequestered, solidified and used to backfill the mines.

And perhaps these spaces nested deep within raw geologic materiality, whether lab, mine or repository, are not so dissimilar.  The scales of their quests and of the forces they engage are vast. Onkalo and WIPP are designed to endure 100,000 years. Creighton Mine plans to descend even further into the earth, to 10,000 feet, in hopes of reaching diamonds (which take 1 billion to 3.3 billion years, under extreme pressure, to form). And SNOLAB seeks to see invisible particles that originate billions of miles outside of our planet in the final moments of a star’s life.

Perhaps at the intersections of such extreme spaces and geologies, otherworldly discoveries are waiting to be made, such as the primordial life unexpectedly found in salt excavated to contain nuclear waste at WIPP. What might yet be found in Creighton Mine or SNOLAB, deep in the Canadian Shield of the Sudbury crater, could help our imaginations meet the realities of the planet we inhabit.

aerial view of SNOLAB and Creighton mine ground facilities

The day before we left Sudbury, we were fortunate enough to view the landscape from above, via seaplane.  We took off from one of many lakes surrounding Sudbury. The perspective was incredible, and is perhaps best described in the words of Café facilitator, Kenneth Hayes, in an essay commissioned for the Musagetes Sudbury project:  “Be Not Afraid of Greatness or, Sudbury: A Cosmic Accident,”

 “Life in this northern town has an eschatological quality that is both immediate and impossibly remote, as if one lives at ground zero two billion years after Armageddon. In Sudbury, it may look like the end is near, but it feels familiar, like it’s been here before.”

The Sudbury Café program, list of participants, and the outstanding publication commissioned by Musagetes:  Sudbury: Life in a Northern Town, can be downloaded directly from the Musagetes website.
all photos this post, FOP 2011, unless otherwise noted.

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