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Becoming Wordless for a Moment

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In Partnership with ARID. ARID: A Journal of Desert Art, Design and Ecology is a peer-reviewed bi-annual journal focusing on cross-disciplinary explorations of desert arts, design, culture, and the environment for both scholarly and new audiences.

Decades in the near future, Southern California and much of the Southwest in the U.S. will be rechristened as Aridtopia, a secessionist, and arid-sustainable community. This speculative article is one in an ongoing series that looks at the present as if it were the past viewed from a future Aridtopia.

The pool has been drained. It is a curved, underground space now. It suggests the first organic architecture used by humans: a cave. My partner and I stand at the edge of the shallow end, looking down into the 12-foot depth of the far end. Edges are not perceptible. It is a curved space that drains away hard-edged, angled daily worries as we descend the tiled stairs and walk down the gently sloping plaster floor towards the deep end's curvature. Our orange trees, aloe plants and San Pedro cacti disappear as we submerge ourselves into the swimming pool. The white plaster reflects the relentless sunlight from a cloudless sky.


This ritual is a fantasy. We do own a sunken backyard pool in Riverside, California, which skirts the Mojave Desert, but it is full of water still. As many as 43,000 pools exist in Los Angeles County according to an independent report created by some college students called the "Big Atlas of L.A. Pools," a digital analysis of every swimming pool in the Los Angeles Basin between the Hollywood Hills and San Pedro. No such report exists for Riverside County, at least from my research. I will assume, then, the same figure due to the size of the county and because so many new houses were built in the 1990s included backyard pools.

About 7,000 gallons of water evaporate from a typical pool over the course of a year. Taking that number times 43,000 pools equals 301,000,000 gallons that has to be replenished each year. On average, a person in California uses from 98 gallons per day in San Francisco to 736 gallons per person per day in Palm Springs, or 35,770 to 268,640 per capita annually. Unable to swallow this figure, my partner and I have decided that our backyard pool must be repurposed. There are so few examples, however, other than filling it in with dirt.


We continue with our fantasy of how to best repurpose our backyard pool.

We lower ourselves gently into the ground. It is not a burial act. In the ground, our past lives die and our true lives open. We connect with the ground and the cosmic. We feel as though we are exploring gravity, as if the curvature of the pool is a depression caused by a heavy invisible object. It is the opposite of what is visible in the universe: we can see the planets, but not the curvature of space produced by their mass.

In the 1970s, a drought in California prompted the draining of pools, which inspired vagabond skateboarders to trespass into backyards. There they skirted the edges of empty pools with boards. They were like asteroids or moons circling a planet, using centrifugal force to create orbits instead of falling like spent satellites.

Our pool is a backyard temple, shrine and church. But instead of a structure above ground, one that might ascend to a sun god, it is recessed in the earth. It is a different cosmology. It is less about contacting supernatural beings and powers. Rather, it is more about contacting one's consciousness that is at once in oneself and also a part of the cosmos. We are both sun gods and human beings.

We do not see the underground, empty, curved space of the pool as a symbolic womb, whether full of water or absent of it, whether wet or dry. Yes, we are being reborn spiritually in the backyard, but not through organic means. It is through a machine without moving parts, that is, the human-built swimming pool. It is a machine, not a womb.

Artist Chad Person stands on his Recess Bunker surrounded by his sculptures, aka survivalist weapons. Image courtesy of the artist.
Artist Chad Person stands on his Recess Bunker surrounded by his sculptures, aka survivalist weapons. | Image: Courtesy of the artist.

In suburban New Mexico, artist Chad Person bought a house with a swimming pool and repurposed it. However, instead of the permaculture route, he refashioned it as a survivalist bunker for his family. While constructed according to speculative, apocalypse specifications, he also treated it as an art project. For a 2010 exhibition, he lived in what he called his "Recess Bunker" for a month and streamed his activities live. The exhibition in the gallery contained constructions that he called both sculptures and survivalist projects, such as the Automated Sentry Defense System.

According to Person's website, you can build your own robotic sentry gun by "using some commonly available electronics, open-source software, and spare parts from your garage." It uses a live camera feed in conjunction with a number of servos to acquire, aim, and fire on potentially hostile targets. Its makeshift appearance suggests a wooden mailbox or old shoeshine box gone awry, sitting atop a tripod made of 2x4s, and what could be an awkward weather vane at the apex, which is actually the gun made from metal piping.

Artist Chad Person's survivalist sculpture/weapon, the Automated Sentry Defense System. | Image courtesy of the artist.
Artist Chad Person's survivalist sculpture/weapon, the Automated Sentry Defense System. | Image: Courtesy of the artist.

Presently, our backyard is full of fruits and vegetables. The trees are orange, lemon, avocado, pomegranate, apple, plum and peach. The raised-garden contains varieties of kales and lettuces, broccoli, cabbage, onions, strawberries, blueberries and various herbs. However, they require water and tending.

An empty pool is a perfect place to create a self-sustaining ecosystem. Dennis McClung came to this revelation in 2009 when he and his partner and their two young children bought a repossessed house in Mesa, Arizona, just outside Phoenix. It had one of the 300,000 pools in the area, according to McClung's statistical research. There they set up their own version of Biosphere 2, which is located not too far from their town.

Biosphere 2 is a somewhat self-contained system that features five different biomes, including a rainforest, an ocean with a coral reef, mangrove wetlands, savannah grassland and a fog desert. It's been an experiment in the relationship between agriculture, human living, and nature in general, with the aim of seeing how we can improve these planetary relationships on a larger scale or perhaps apply to future outer-space colonization. Survival will be tenuous beyond Earth as the rest of the solar system is an extreme environment not meant for humans.

Schematic drawing for the Garden Pool. Image courtesy of Garden Pool.
Schematic drawing for the Garden Pool. | Image: Courtesy of Garden Pool.

The McClung family was self-sustaining within a year and has gone on to create an educational nonprofit called Garden Pool.

Their main structure consists of PVC tubing bent over a 2Ã?4 wood structure to create a curved roof. Plastic greenhouse sheeting covers the tubing. McClung says it took about a day to build and about $1,500 in supplies. When you walk into the backyard, it appears like any homemade greenhouse. However, when you enter it, the depth below ground is the surprise.

According to the website, the Garden Pool utilizes a permaculture sensibility that mimics relationships found in natural ecologies. By combing solar power panels to harness and store the sun's energy, the McClungs are able to pump water from their pond at the deep end up to the garden areas. In addition to water conservation and waste-water recycling, poultry farming is interwoven in the Garden Pool. The chickens are situated at the pool's deep end near a pond full of tilapia fish--the waste from the chickens falls through a wire mesh, which feeds the algae, which the fish eat. The family of four eats the tilapia, a resulted sustenance in this practice of aquaculture. Through hydroponic gardening, fruits, veggies and herbs are grown without soil (using expanding clay balls instead), irrigated with water pumped from the tilapia fishpond via solar energy. This allows for an aquaponic solution: organic horticulture using natural methods to control garden pests, such as snails; biofiltration (natural water filtration by way of biochemistry and duckweed); and a thermal mass of thousands of gallons of water that is warmed by the sun.

The Garden Pool in working condition. | Image courtesy of Garden Pool.
The Garden Pool in working condition. | Image: Courtesy of Garden Pool.

At the deep end of the Garden Pool, my partner and I rest. We sit side by side on a platform with round yoga cushions, cross our legs, hold each other's hands crossed between us, and stare at the plaster's whiteness.

It is a machine to induce meditation. There are no moving parts. We hear birds sing above us. We hear the seedpods of the jacaranda jingle in the wind. They are not machine parts. They are separate people. My partner and I are of the people who build and use machines. But sometimes the original intention is reimagined based on changing circumstances, as with this swimming pool.

It is 85 degrees above the rim of the swimming pool. Down here, it is not the 55 degrees common in many cave environments. Underground, it is always the same season. To achieve that kind of underground weather, the cave has to be sealed off from the surface for the most part and not too near a molten mass. For the pool, airflow brings down aboveground temperatures, which are then mitigated by the underground temperature, balancing out at between 50 and 60 degrees.

It is as though we are descending down deep into the limestone caves in France and Spain with their Upper Paleolithic painted and engraved images. Horses, bulls, stags, ibexes and oxen -- thought to be 15,000 to 17,000 years old -- could just as easily be galloping, charging and leaping across the curvature of the pool's deep end. It is our own underworld. But our cave is one more in our minds.

We lose a sense of our boundaries, even while holding hands. We sit in this silent machine and silently become cosmic. Sometimes we keep our eyes open, though blinking normally, and other times we close them. At all times we follow our breaths. We are the organic part that contributes to the working of this machine.

Images of aurochs, horses and deer in Lascaux Caves, France. | Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
Images of aurochs, horses and deer in Lascaux Caves, France. | Image: Wikipedia Commons.

In the future, in Aridtopia, we will call this "repurposing" in combination with the mediationTurrelling, named after the artist James Turrell, who is still alive in the present day, long before the rise of Aridtopia.

Turrell has made light his medium. For some of his interior work, he creates what he calls a Ganzfeld. As he writes on his website, Ganzfeld is "a German word to describe the phenomenon of the total loss of depth perception as in the experience of a whiteout." In his installations, Turrell artificially creates a similar experience through the controlled use of light, curved corners and an inclined floor.

For others, he created a series of "Skyspaces." They are purpose-built rooms with an opening to the sky in the ceiling. Benches usually line the perimeter of the walls where viewers can watch the slow, shifting colors of the sky. It, too, is a machine with no moving parts except for clouds and the rotation of the Earth. The basis of the device is framing the sky, which decontextualizes it from its surroundings, thus making it strange to us again. But the framing also limits our viewpoints on purpose in order to make the vast sky and cosmos a more intimate experience.

Similarly, we can also lie at the bottom of the pool on another platform, while the edges of the pool create a frame of the sky.

Detail of empty swimming pool in author's backyard. | Courtesy of Tyler Stallings.
Detail of empty swimming pool in author's backyard. | Photo: Courtesy of Tyler Stallings.

There is nothing else in this curved space that lives. The living world is above us. Down here in our own repurposed pool, it is simple, giving the feeling that we could create our world anew. It is this cleansing that my partner and I take with us as we ascend back up to the edge of the swimming pool and step back into view of our orange trees, aloe plants and San Pedro cacti. We were wordless down in the pool, in the depths of the Earth, but now we are full of words for articulating a repurposing of the world's built environment. But they may be such new words that they could sound like babble to some. Nonetheless, the pool has been drained and has become a machine for spiritual replenishment that connects the underground, the surface and the sky together. It is an axis mundi, but with the aim of sustaining Earth rather than enhancing relationships to gods.

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