Spoil islands were produced by the US Army Corps of Engineers as a byproduct of channel dredging, spanning the length of the United States. Are they capable of hosting life? Is it ever practically possible to “leave no trace?” Aly Ogasian and Shona Kitchen interrogate the dissolution of nature and artifice on an accidental island lodged between a Floridian lagoon and the Kennedy Space Center.
Climate change seems to require that we adjust to the prospects of socio-ecological worlds marked by near-permanent unsettlement. We increasingly know—as the philosopher Dale Jamieson has noted—that in the best possible circumstances, human life in the post-Holocene is going to take place on a dynamic, restless, and much warmer planet. We find ourselves thrown into uncanny hybrid worlds for which we have few maps.
Made Ground, Kitchen and Ogasian’s most recent installation of the project Another Final Frontier, on Governors Island, New York City, is a remarkable act of curation and invention that emerged from the coast of Florida. Through film, photography, sound recordings, experiments, soil samples, and the construction of an archive, Made Ground offers us a glimpse into how to construct futures in a warming world and suggests that even in the most oddly produced natures, in the midst of Florida heat and space dust, life persists—and perhaps so can we.
Grey Island, Florida, January 2020
The first thing to be said about spoil islands is that we don’t know much about them. There is less information about this spoil island and the thousands like it that line the US Atlantic coast than there is about the surface of the moon. Which is to say that the spoil island where the project’s camp was made, where all the early indications of its coming submersion—along with much of the rest of the coastline—are already evident, and where you may someday visit (it’s only 500 feet from the shore) is another final frontier.
We do know that this island—Grey Island—is 400 feet in diameter. It has a ring of vegetation around its shore, some of which is native (like sabal palms and red mangroves) and some of which is considered exotic (like Brazilian pepper trees). The island’s center—like the middle of a lifesaver ring—is mostly barren. Its mound of rock and shell rises to about five feet above sea level. Over the past couple of years, we have learned other things about this island which will serve as tools and evidence for what the island means and what training to live here looks like.
We know that this island has been here for about seven decades. Spoil islands like this one are waste products from dredging channels. The focus is on the channels, which are measured and maintained—not on the islands, which are left to their own devices. They are cast to the side and often overlooked, if not forgotten entirely. This chain of spoil islands was formed in the late 1920s and early 1930s when the US Army Corps of Engineers was cutting an East Coast channel through Florida’s Mosquito Lagoon that would become the Intracoastal Waterway. Grey Island is a bit younger. It was set in place when the county added a public boat ramp to the Beacon 42 camp on the mainland and cut a short trough to connect with the waterway’s channel. The island first appears on a USDA aerial photograph taken during the third flight line on March 18, 1951. Its form, already rounded by currents, looks like a white hole in the metal-gray waters of the lagoon.
Grey Island floats in two overlapping areas: a wildlife refuge and a space center, one dedicated to nature and the other to technology. Both emerged after the bucket and pipeline dredgers had laced the Indian River Lagoon System with spoil islands. Grey Island makes up two acres of the 140,000 that NASA acquired in 1962 in the drive to expand its exploration of space, specifically its lunar landing program. Look south from the island, between palm trunks and pepper tree limbs, and you can see the Vehicle Assembly Building of the Kennedy Space Center on the horizon. This is where engineers assembled the rockets for the Apollo missions that went to the moon. If there were a large enough crane, the VAB could be lifted over the island like the glass cover of a bell jar—or the casing of an experimental habitat.
From this vantage point on the spoil island, we embark on our own mission, exploring what we don’t yet know and training ourselves to live in a place that is both near and far, a place that is remarkable yet also quite ordinary. A place forgotten in plain sight. We have found our own landing site amid the constellation that is this 3,000-mile string of islands, stretching from New York City to Brownsville, Texas. It is hot, the mosquitos cloud like moon dust, the ground is hard, and the sea is rising. We have traveled far into space without ever leaving Earth.
Return to the Moon
About the time President Eisenhower started planning the NASA complex, dredgers were maintaining the Intracoastal Waterway, scooping up chunks of limestone, shell, and coral, and then noisily sucking them through a pipe toward the spoil islands. We imagine the sound of buttons, snaps, and zippers clanking round and round in a clothes dryer. Locals, fishing and boating here in Mosquito Lagoon, said it sounded like clinkers, and so they named these islands “the clinkers.”
We have often said that the center of the spoil island looks like the surface of the moon. Astronaut Ken Mattingly could have been describing the island’s ground from Apollo 16’s command module orbiting the moon when he said: “It looks very much like a big clinkery cinder field, yeah, a big, rounded surface of clinkers. It is fantastic. Boy, is that rough!” In his black-and-white photographs from the 1972 mission, the moon’s craters look like the spoil islands that dapple the aerial shots taken by the same kind of mapping camera in the 1940s and 50s. They are inverses of each other, island and crater, and yet they share origins in the displacement of material, whether earth or moon.
On the second day of the first spoil island expedition, we estimated that about 20,000 tons of dredged material makes up Grey Island. “Clinkery” is a fitting description for this land formed of waste—not just for the jangly sound it makes rattling in a pipe, but also because clinkers are the residue left when something is burned.
An astronaut orbiting the moon saw clinkers, fishermen casting their lines around spoil islands heard them, and here on Grey Island, the camp rests on them. This dredged material is the camp’s substrate, the footing for the geodesic dome which will be its habitat for living, the context for tools and equipment, and the rock and shell pad for sleeping bags. It seems to groan when you walk on it. It is the foundation for an outlaw area where nature and technology meet.
Buckminster Fuller argued that technology emerged on the frontiers of exploration, in what he called the “outlaw area.” Fuller’s vision hints at legacies of colonization, which this spoil island expedition resists by turning inward to revisit where we already are—not to “reform man,” but to discover our weaknesses and strengths. Fuller’s model relies on the power of military technology to guide future innovation, also a trajectory that our project seeks to reverse. On the spoil island, creative impulse hacks technology. Despite these objections, we are dredging for something there in the depths of Fuller’s work, an underpinning that takes the futurist back to his home, across Penobscot Bay to Bear Island in Maine, described as the “source of his ideas.”
Relevant to Grey Island and the present expedition are two other key thoughts that arise from Fuller’s technological vision. Spoil islands are in neither the 75 percent water nor the 25 percent land he classified. They are fabricated land made out of the sea—the outcome of the human impulse to transform environments to their liking. Out there on the island, there’s an irony in the way that Fuller talks about improvement in the outlaw area. We know he is talking about technological innovation, but spoil islands are the residue of what has long been considered “improvements” to nature: the straightening of rivers, the redirection of currents, and the building of dikes to corral water.
Those who occupy spoil islands are neither in the 99 percent of the populace who have stayed on land, nor are they in the “tiny minority” who, according to Fuller, “went to sea.” On a spoil island, you have embarked on an adventure that is somewhere in between. Your tenure here is closer to spending time on a houseboat—or a shipwreck. In Fuller’s terms, the spoil island constitutes another outlaw area—a place where the “development of technology” meets the “toughness of nature,” and his aspirations for “improvement” come not through any physical manipulation of land or any technical mastery of the sea, but through the insights that might be gleaned from such a place and such perspective.
Native Americans inhabited this part of the Florida peninsula for thousands of years, and the Seminole Tribe of Florida currently claims this land. The Ais, the Mayaca, the Timucua, and ancestors of the Seminole Tribe, the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida built an extensive system of earthworks throughout the peninsula. Mounds served as bases for ritual practices, and middens were the refuse heaps of shells harvested, opened, and tossed into the growing pile. Collections of waste indicate shared undertakings.
Middens rose up from the indigenous harvest of aquatic resources, and spoil islands are the result of governmental provision of navigable waters. Florida’s east coast middens are some of the largest refuse mounds in the United States. The Castle Windy midden is seventeen feet high and 300 feet long. Seminole Rest, only eight miles north of Grey Island, is more than twenty feet high (even though it was depleted by mining operations), and Turtle Mound is more than twice that height. Such places make their own weather, and the air atop Turtle Mound is rarefied, caught between the natural and artificial.
Because the lagoon and the Indian River are so exceedingly shallow, mostly between three and four feet, dredged material piles up and creates elevations and conditions that introduce their own microclimates (not unlike an inland barrier island). The spoil islands are upland environments in unlikely places, supporting improbable growth that includes pepper trees, wild coffee, and papaya far beyond their historical planting zones.
Mosquito Lagoon is known for its bioluminescence. Imagine dragging your kayak from the island camp, across the spoil, and launching it into the lagoon, so warm, like bath water. Out towards the channel, it starts. Flickers at first, and then a blue-green glow in our wake. Tiny dinoflagellates, like millions of constellations, light our path. You might be in space but you haven’t left Earth. Mid-summer clouds drift across the moon, and the color deepens to a milky blue, and the water slackens between tides. Soon, the new moon will bring a king tide, and it will lap at the edge of the dome.
Made Ground: Governors Island, June 2021
There’s a moment near the end of D.H. Lawrence’s story “The Man Who Loved Islands” when the protagonist, on his third island, reckons with the environmental changes around him: “He pushed the snow away, then sat down under the lee of the boat, looking at the sea, which nearly swirled to his feet in the high tide. Curiously natural the pebbles looked, in a world gone all uncanny.” Returning to Lawrence’s story in preparation for the project’s exhibition on Governors Island (only our second island), we couldn’t help but read it as climate change literature.
Written ninety-four years ago, here was a warning, a navigational aid like the foghorn that used to protect ships from running aground on Governors Island. Lawrence tells how occupying an island lifts the veil of security we find in the distractions of daily life, and how it confronts time and questions stability. When Lawrence writes that “once you isolate yourself on a little island in the sea of space, and the moment begins to heave and expand in great circles, the solid earth is gone,” he traces our own journey on made ground, where water and earth mix, more water rises, and building necessarily becomes repairing.
Camping on the dredged earth of the spoil island in Florida, we questioned the human relationship to land. Kitchen and Ogasian named it for its lunar complexion, but nobody owns Grey Island, and like Governors Island, its administration is a lattice of agencies—NASA, Canaveral National Seashore (CNSS), and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (MINWR), to name a few.
Camping there meant rethinking what land tenure means. And here on Governors Island, the dome’s stakes are driven into thin topsoil covering a glacial moraine next to ground pumped from harbor mud a century ago, on land stolen from the Lenape, on an island named for what nature offered. Before Verrazzano sailed in, Nutten Island harbored groves of nut trees. It was a place where no human lived permanently, a fishing camp next to deep water. How quickly the island went from natural resource to military reserve, from land balancing human activity with what nature offers to land held by force.
Camping in the dome on islands, we realized our tenancy was not only temporary but also borrowed. The Grey Island camp was in a wildlife refuge with clear rules about “leave no trace.” But it’s also evident that you can’t truly inhabit the island without leaving traces. Camping on the island, you take the land whether you like it or not, and it can be a struggle to know what to pledge in return. When you leave the island, the spikes that anchor the dome will easily lift out of the ground’s slurry of shell and marl, and the dome’s footprint can be seen in the dusting of tracks, in and out and around its perimeter.
Now on Governors Island, this dome occupies the ancient drip lines of hickory trees, as it also rests under the ghost canopy of the Carolina Poplar, which was carefully noted in a 1963 landscape survey of the island. Its roots surely still braid the earth beneath the dome. Is it possible to occupy today’s unstable grounds as if we were borrowing land and also lending ourselves to the world?
With the dome as our vehicle, together we have asked how to build where earth and water mix to make land. And so we continue to gather evidence, our dome is as much a vessel as it is a tool. Our dome crossed the Atlantic, came through Jupiter, Florida, was ferried to an island that looked like the moon, rode on trucks to Providence, crossed the East River’s flood tide for the installation, and temporarily occupied Nolan Park right next to the Governors Island’s parade ground.
We continue to think about the geodesic dome’s many ironies. This one was produced for glamping, but its vinyl wrap and leaky airlock brought no glamour to camping in Florida, only sweat and mosquitos and insomnia. Similar domes became DIY symbols despite their normative structure, and others housed pacifist communities even as they were being deployed in military operations. From radar outposts in the Arctic to Buckminster Fuller’s bell jar over midtown, domes have captured territory and tried to control environments, all with the same earnest absurdity of McKim, Mead, and White’s designs for heavy Beaux Arts buildings on Governors Island’s newly dredged spoil.
This past month Charlie has been working with architecture students at a local non-profit called The Repurpose Project, a thrift store outpost in the circular economy. Exploring the salvage yard they discovered a jungle gym, one of those old-school domes of tubular steel. Someone had wrapped its surface with chicken wire and then carefully, but also carefreely, woven in scraps of plastic, drink lids, toys, rubber gaskets, sippy cups, and egg cartons.
Trees arching overhead added their own materials. Leaves from laurel oaks and needles, and branches from loblolly and long-leaf pines covered the dome’s surface, and when he and his students crawled through a triangle that opened like a tent flap, they entered an archetype of shelter and realized its steel structure was an approximation of a wigwam’s bent saplings, or a yurt’s stretched skins. They also entered a dome that carries two different cycles—one based on economies of waste, and another tied to natural cycles of growth.
Where does what we build fall in these cycles? Can building also be repairing? What is the role of technology, in its root sense of techne that links art, craft, and product, and that meshes what we build with how we build it? Even if architecture preceded clothing, how do we remember that nature came before all that?
The View from Space
Yesterday, Aly sent Shona and Charlie a screenshot from Google Earth. Right about noon on February 2, 2020, a satellite photographed the dome on Grey Island, just a few days after we finished setting it up. There it is, almost exactly in the center of the island—a precision as serendipitous as the timing of the low-orbit photograph. This certainly isn’t a blue marble picture. It looks more like a grey golf ball wedged into a sand trap—but the image does make us think about home. Seeing that image makes us nostalgic for camping there. How easy it is to forget the effort of ferrying materials, bolting joints, and sweating in the hot January sun.
Seeing that image also reminded us of Lawrence’s line that “an island is a nest which holds one egg and one only. The egg is the islander himself.” Islands isolate, as they also incubate. They beget ideas about where we’ve been and where we might go, and where we are right now. Maybe it never went away, as the many domes that have occupied Governors Island demonstrate, but we have puzzled at the dome’s renaissance during the pandemic. Not only has it continued as a vehicle of escape—glamping far from cities with spiraling infection levels—but it has also served as a bubble of isolation, practicing yoga in transparent domes, close but far away.
Cover photo: Kitchen and Ogasian collect plant samples. Image courtesy of Kitchen and Ogasian.