“I hope the future of humanity will strive to create cosmic biospheres. . .”
Located in the Sonoran desert near Tucson, Biosphere 2 is touted by Columbia University as the world’s largest glass-enclosed ecological laboratory. Space Biospheres Ventures described it as a “planet in a bottle” into which were imported over 3800 hand-selected species of plants and animals that inhabited five distinct ecological “biomes” — a marsh, a desert, a savannah, an ocean, and a rainforest: the indoor rain and tides controlled by computer from the Biosphere Command Room. In September of 1991, wearing futuristic jumpsuits made by one of Marilyn Monroe’s clothes designers, four men and four women entered Biosphere 2 (Biosphere 1 is Earth), closed the airlock behind them and, except for one of the women who left Biosphere briefly to have her severed finger sewn back on after a threshing machine accident, emerged two years later. They had orange skin from the high levels of beta-carotene in their diet. They had since become acclimated to oxygen levels that intitially found them with symptoms of high-altitude sickness. And they hadn’t carried cash in two years.
I became interested in Biosphere 2 when I stopped there on a roadtrip through the Southwest. I had never heard of Biosphere 2, but as soon as the tour guide began telling us about the project and led us into the berthing and living areas I was struck by certain parallels with living in Antarctica: the voluntary isolation, the small community, the grassroots recreation, the absence of treasured commodities, and the intentional social design, to name a few.
For years parallels have been made between Biosphere 2, Antarctic stations, and space stations, but usually such inquiries follow a scientific or technical line. As many readers of Big Dead Place are accustomed to year-long contracts at Antarctic stations, I approached Abigail Alling via email to learn about the cultural aspects of living in Biosphere 2 for two years, and to discuss the parallels between Biosphere 2 and Antarctic stations. Miss Alling is a founding crewmember of Biosphere 2; she lived inside the experiment from September 1991 to September 1993.
Big Dead Place: Your book briefly mentions that you’ve tracked whales to Antarctica. Did you go to any of the American stations?
Abigail Alling: We went to Palmer with the RV Heraclitus in 1989. A beautiful trip, and we were made very welcome.
In “Life Under Glass: The Inside Story of Biosphere 2″ you wrote that “One of the most interesting (and distant) links we made was in March 1992 with the twenty-two-person American research team at the South Pole. Part of our fascination was in finding a mirror through which to see ourselves.” What did you learn from the mirror?
We recognized the group in Antarctica were facing similar challenges as we were and I recall appreciating that we were not alone — that there were others experiencing (1) isolation and group dynamic issues, (2) a foreign environment, and (3) food issues. It was exciting to know that there were two experiments on-go at the same time.
You decided to isolate yourself in Biosphere for two solid years. How did your idea of isolation from the world-at-large change from before you went inside to after you came out?
I had spent a lot of time at sea before BIO2, so I had some experience with isolation and I think this prepared me well.
What did it mean when that door closed behind you?
When the door closed behind us I felt that “the moment” was a turning point. That we had begun the journey, but that we would not be moving like a ship, we would be stationary. However, the experience was a journey in time — experiencing how people might have lived “in tune” with the environment in ancient times past, to future space travelers.
In the papers we learn that isolation is considered by many to be a terrible hardship, but for those so engaged it seems almost an addiction. What is different about the person who enjoys the feeling of that door shutting behind them?
I loved living inside BIO2 and was, in fact, reluctant to come out! Others inside during the two years really toyed with the idea of coming out and expressed unhappiness from time to time. I think this comes down to that some people are adventurers and some are not. I am.
Every season here I notice that there are those who count the days until they leave, and those who don’t. What was the population of day-counters in Biosphere? In your opinion, what characteristics are shared by day-counters?
About five counted the days to departure and three did not. Day-counters were not as happy!
In your book you write that after the doors closed, “What was inside was now all we had.” I’m particularly fascinated that while people at Antarctic stations pine for fresh vegetables during the winter, you lived mainly on fresh vegetables, and that while we live on meat and coffee and booze, you were short of all three. Once one has been cut off from a transfusion of supplies, it seems that no matter how well one has prepared, one longs for some commodity one can’t get. What kinds of goodies from civilization did you long for? What are three items that you brought that made you grateful for your own forethought?
That is a very interesting analogy! I did not bring any goodies with me! I was very keen to embrace the experiment and I missed coffee, tea, wine, etc. as these all provide a social scene and encourage “hanging out” and conversations. We did have about one cup of coffee every month as we had coffee trees inside, and we created this fabulous banana/goat-milk ice cream or shake that we loved. Also, at the one-year mark we harvested a bunch of bananas and made a banana wine so we could all have one glass!
One glass in a year? That’s surely difficult for most Antarcticans to imagine, as overall we spend much of our off-time three sheets to the wind. After a year without, did one glass of wine get you tipsy? At that party did anyone make out in the corner? Dance on a table? Babble through the intercom system?
Yes, one glass of wine got us tipsy. We all got up and danced on the table at one point!
You mention that you had stringent PQ requirements: did you have to have your wisdom teeth removed? Did you undergo a psych evaluation?
I had no wisdom teeth removed. We all had psych evaluations and were “rated” along with astronauts.
Was the psych eval the MMPI (where it asks true or false questions such as “I see things other people do not see” and “I would like to be a florist”)?
Yes there was that one, and another that I do not recall the name of, and a visual one.
For those two years you lived with seven other people. Over the years did your community dispense with pleasantries or did it continue to find them important? How important is interpersonal “maintenance” in a close community?
We had worked with each other for about five years prior to going in so we had a lot of experience with each other. Interpersonal maintenance was very important and in fact I wrote a paper about this. Please send me your mail address and I will forward it.
I’d appreciate that. After a few months at an Antarctic station, many of the women’s menstrual cycles begin naturally to sync up. My women friends claim that their cycles usually follow that of a local “alpha female”, which can change throughout the season for various reasons, including social standing and use of birth control and such. In Biosphere, did the women’s menstrual cycles line up?
Yes, I recall that they did.
Like early Antarctic explorers in their tents, you discovered quickly that distributing equal food rations was the only way to keep people from resenting each others’ portions. Did you maintain this practice the entire time?
After some months in that small community, you learned that someone in the group was stealing food, and thereafter the food had to be locked up. Did you ever find out who it was? If not, did your own suspicions stick on one person, or did they float around as your relationships with the others waxed and waned?
The food issue definitely was a point of anger. And I thought I knew who was doing it, and I never changed my mind about it!
I’m certain that one of the most fascinating aspects of Biosphere for my readers will be that some of you were in there ripping each others’ jumpsuits off and having sex. You promised in your book that none of you would ever disclose who was shacking up with who, but other than names can you elaborate on Biospherian sexual dynamics? Once the doors had closed, how long was it before a couple hooked up? Did they sneak around for awhile or were they open about it from the beginning?
Sorry to be so boring about answering this question, but people who went in as couples, stayed as couples. Those who went in single, stayed single. So, no great comments!
With long periods of the same work routine and inevitable ruts of social interaction, many Antarcticans get “toasty” or “go toast” during the winter, a kind of group insanity fostered by lack of external references, where you’re all going a little bit mad, but since everyone else is going mad in a similar way and in the same direction, toastiness is not necessarily apparent as it happens. Did the Biospherians experience this? Did you have a pet word for it?
I did not experience this exactly. We had a lot of contact with the outside — from seeing people daily at the window, telephone calls, etc. So isolation for us was somewhat different. Plus we had a lot of input from people on the outside helping to advise us and assist us in the management issues. Isolation really meant living just with seven others; no other physical contact; the strange [thing] knowing that any one of us could open the door and leave (we were not on a ship or in a remote Antarctic base, which had its own peculiar psychological behaviors); and a very different atmosphere, food, and daily living than what one would experience on earth.
You didn’t use money inside Biosphere. After you got out did you ever forget to pay for something or forget to bring money somewhere?
At one point you mention: “Some things that are normally easily arranged take a lot of explaining and haggling to accomplish from a distance. . .” Have you ever told anyone on the outside that you couldn’t sign a document because “I’m locked in a Biosphere”? Have you had customer service representatives hang up on you?
When we first started building BIO2, we would have to spell the word “biosphere”! That is how new the idea was. I would rarely try to explain I was inside a biosphere: that would have taken way too much time to get through that one. We all had legal representatives on the outside who could handle our money or other affairs.
It is customary in Antarctica to watch The Thing because it gives us a good laugh at the popular image of Antarctica while also having a few impressionistic points of accuracy. Did you ever watch Silent Running while in the Biosphere?
I loved Silent Running. Not for the story, but for the images and it was an extremely important film in that regard for all of us.
Yeah, I lose interest in Silent Running when he tries to teach the robots to play poker. What exactly do the Biospherians find important about it?
We were fascinated by the imagery — beautiful, inspiring and very real. I hope the future of humanity will strive to create cosmic biospheres like those illustrated in Silent Running.
While you were in Biosphere you watched an episode of Star Trek “about a colony of humans from Earth who were living in a biosphere situated on the polar regions of a barren planet.” What did the Biospherians say to each other or laugh about from the show?
I do remember it, but not in specific detail. I remember thinking it was fun they had a biosphere, but the show itself did not seem too interesting.
I found a synopsis of the show on the web. If it’s the same episode, it was called “The Masterpiece Society” about a colony of genetically-superior humans sealed inside a biosphere. Though faced with impending destruction by some external catastrophe, the colony refuses help from the Federation because that would upset the delicate balance of their technological biosphere.
The plot seems to exploit the social prejudice that anyone seeking to cut themselves off from society will sooner or later get into trouble or endure terrible suffering and will need to be rescued by the very society they’ve split from, and implies also that such people are dogmatically irrational. Did you ever encounter people who expressed this herd mentality in regards to Biosphere 2? Did anyone ever call you “elitists” or “cultists” or “fanatics”? Were there people or groups who, for some reason or another, felt threatened by what you were doing?
Everyone had a theory for what we were doing, and a lot of people felt threatened for sure. In the end, very few people understood or appreciated the Biosphere Experiment. A real shock. But I learned how little people think, and certainly how few people can “see” the biosphere or global ecological systems.
Was there any particularly ridiculous press you received that made you laugh?
French news said that we left the Biosphere in December of 1991 gasping for air.
When I went to Biosphere 2, the tour guide told us a story about how some mangrove trees were brought there from Florida. But because someone managing the project didn’t clear the trees to pass through Arizona customs, the trucks carrying all these mangrove trees just sat in New Mexico for a few days until the paperwork came through. “This place reminds me more of Antarctica each minute,” I thought as I heard the story.
The mangroves were held not because we did not have the paperwork, but because someone holding them thought they were mangos, which were not allowed to cross the border!!!
Who are some of your personal heroes or influences?
Sylvia Earle and Jane Goodall.
I’ve read that the roots of the Biosphere 2 project lie in a New Mexico commune named Synergia Ranch, which was influenced by the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff, the infamous Armenian mystic. I’m presently reading Meetings with Remarkable Men, and I’m fond of Gurdjieff because no matter how abstract or metaphysical his proposals, he seldom fails to ground them in the concrete, mundane world of doing business or learning pragmatic trades. “Life Under Glass” reads: “The ability to improvise and to ‘jury-rig’ equipment when necessary was a crucial aspect of living in a closed system.” and “Without Biosphere 2, there was no study of biospherics, hence our number one objective was to keep all systems operating.” Of course Gurdjieff didn’t invent pragmatism, but have you read his books?
I can’t answer for Synergia Ranch and how it was inspired. I have read Meetings with Remarkable Men and recall seeing the film when I was about seventeen, and thought it was a beautiful film.
Your jumpsuits were designed by one of Marilyn Monroe’s clothes designers simply because he was interested in your project. Who were some other famous individual sponsors?
No other famous individual sponsors come to me but famous individuals stopped by such as Marlon Brando.
Brando died recently, and I’m not sure his interest in Biosphere has ever been recorded. What was the nature of the visit?
I did not meet with him personally. But prior to his death I spoke to him about coral reefs and his concern for the death of corals on his atoll of Tahiti.
You say it was William Burroughs who urged you to include simians in the Biosphere and that you named a monkey after him, that was eventually killed by exploring its way into a power transformer box. What was the Biospherians’ connection to William Burroughs?
William Burroughs was a very closed friend of the founder of BIO2, John Allen, and of one of the directors, Kathelin Gray. We met him through them. William expressed to John that BIO2 really influenced him, specifically with regards to people’s intentions towards the planet, and the increased attention-through-rapid-change montage, of which the biomes of BIO2 provided profound experience. We had three primates inside BIO2, and one of them during Mission Two was killed by a power transformer box.
Gaie Alling is presently CEO of the Planetary Coral Reef Foundation, a non-profit organization with a mission “to preserve and protect the earth’s coral reefs through pioneering programs in science, technology and education.”