Greenhouse Defect

A second group of seven went in in 1994, but lasted only six-and-a-half months. These Biosphereans spent so much time working the crops and engaging in other basic survival chores that they had little time for scientific research.

What were the results? Well, as the New York Times recently reported, "the would-be Eden became a nightmare, its atmosphere gone sour, its sea acidic, its crops failing and many of its species dying off."

But all of that is in the past, now that Columbia University has taken over. That whole glorious sci-fi element is gone--no more smiling Biosphereans tramping about in red jump suits with "BIO 2" patches sewn over their hearts. Or brave, vaguely silly space farmers in a monstrous glass pyramid probing the possibility of a self-sufficient New Age existence for the benefit of all humankind.

Today, the site combines research with pleasure, resortlike recreation with scientific credibility, a place where students (there are 52 of them from around the world in attendance presently) can study as Mom, Dad and Sis gasp and boggle at the ex-living quarters of the Biosphereans, take a tumble in the wacky Eco-Tube and top off the day with a fine meal at the Canyon Cafe with a chilled bottle of Kendall Jackson Chardonnay.

Just don't forget, dinner reservations are required.

It is the afternoon before I am to enter Biosphere 2. I have planted my bags in the hotel room, and I have driven into the closest town, Oracle.

There is not a lot to do in Oracle on a Tuesday night, here in Biosphere 1. I stop at the Hildreth Market. It has a general-store feel to it, and--other than the impressive rack of porn in the anachronistically labeled "Family Reading Center" rack--it's someplace Aunt Bea would shop. Right by the cash register, it's got flash cubes for sale.

Two young women who look about 19, one with a toddler in a diaper, are standing there putting coins into a machine that will make funny ducklike sounds and drop an egg filled with candy.

We start talking about where to eat in town, and when they find out I'm staying at the Biosphere Hotel, they recoil in horror.

"They got scorpions in the beds!" yells the woman without the toddler. This woman has a large tattoo of the Tasmanian Devil on her leg.

"Scorpions?" I reply. "How do you know?"
"We used to work there!"
I'm thinking they don't look like scientists.
"We were maids." Maids, wow. Not even "housekeepers."
"How long did you guys work there?"
"I was there three months," says the tattooed one.

"Yeah, and I was there a day!" says the other one. "I saw a scorpion in the toilet and I ran out of there screaming like shit!" She reenacts this intense scene, clutching her head with both hands, accenting the screaming like shit. "Sometimes there's scorpions in the Kleenex boxes," she continues. "They like to get in there where it's dark."

During all of this, the stately, vaguely Hispanic-looking woman behind the counter stares and shakes her head. I thank the young women for the lowdown and wave them out the door, and the woman speaks.

"Don't believe what they tell you." She lowers her voice, even though we're the only people in the place. "They got fired." She smiles wisely. "Those two, I've known them since they were born, and now they're boy-crazy," she says, as if that explains everything. It explains the toddler; what it reveals about the scorpions I don't know.

"But they're young girls," she continues, "what do you expect? I like Biosphere. I think it's educational."

And, for the record, Room 16 was scorpion-free.

At 10 a.m. the next morning, it is eerily quiet at Biosphere 2. There is the feeling of an amusement park closed down for cleaning. My tour will begin across from the Rain Forest Gift Shop next to the solar panels, and as I wait there, a small pastel battalion of senior citizens gathers.

These are to be my tour mates.
Our first stop is at the Biome Demonstration Laboratories, where miniversions of the various ecosystems found in Biosphere 2 were developed. It's raining in the rain forest, and the room is flush with plants. One, our guide Amelia explains, is the kapok tree. Its inner husk is very buoyant and is used to stuff life preservers, despite that it is also very flammable. "You take the good with the bad," Amelia says with a giggle.

We travel through the other demo-biomes, which is pretty much like walking through a big greenhouse. If you enjoy greenhouses, this is great fun. There's the prototype ocean, murky green water in a deep glass-windowed tank, and next to it a stack of boxes labeled "Instant Ocean."

"That's what they use in the ocean biome," Amelia reveals to me, to which I reply, "Oh, just add water, eh?" To which she says "That's right."

Mere steps away from entering Biosphere 2, the legendary mother ship herself, I inhale deeply. The smells riding the desert breeze at that moment are sage, mesquite and a debilitating wave of perfume rising off the collective senior females around me. Back in the old days, that stench alone would have probably sent the fragile, untainted ecosystems of the 'sphere into a death spiral of synthetic impurity.

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