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Atlas of Material Worlds

"This beautiful and insightful collection stretches the idea of the atlas to offer a meditation on the material elements with which we are historically entangled. Just listen to the names of the chapters—uranium, lithium, clay, crude, sand, mud, metabolite—to hear the resonance of industrial worlds in motion. Through a fantastic array of images, maps, and words, the atlas offers stories that need to be told."       

      - Anna Tsing
        co-editor, Feral Atlas: The More-than-Human Anthropocene



Atlas of Material Worlds is a highly designed narrative atlas illustrating the agency of nonliving materials with unique, ubiquitous, and often hidden influence on our daily lives. 

Employing new materialism as a jumping-off point, it examines the increasingly blurry lines between the organic and inorganic, engaging the following questions: What roles do non-living materials play? Might a closer examination of those roles reveal an undeniable agency we have long overlooked or disregarded? If so, does this material agency change our understanding of the social structures, ecologies, economies, cosmologies, technologies, and landscapes that surround us? And, perhaps most importantly, why does material agency matter? This is the story of the world’s driest nonpolar desert, pink flamingos, and cerulean blue lithium ponds; industrial shipping logistics, pudding-like jiggling substrates, and monuments of mud; galactic bodies, radioactive sheep, and the yellowcake of uranium. 

Put simply, this book dares readers to see the world anew, from material up. Atlas of Material Worlds offers this new relationship to our host environment in a time of mounting crises—accelerating climate change, ballooning socioeconomic inequality, and rising toxic nationalism—uniquely telling materialist stories for practitioners and students in landscape, architecture, and other built environment disciplines.


    Foreword ...................

    Introduction ..............
1. URANIUM .................
2. LITHIUM ....................
3. CRUDE ......................
4. CLAY ..........................
5. SAND ........................
6. MUD ..........................
7. METABOLITE ...........

    Conclusion ................
    Afterword ..................

“Atlas of Material Worlds delves into the earth’s lithosphere, presenting a series of mineral narratives that animate the so-called inanimate world. Matthew Seibert’s expertly edited and illustrated volume challenges the capitalist extraction enterprise by mapping the very agency of elemental minerals, moving seamlessly across scales from the microscopic to the cosmic. Much like Alexander von Humboldt’s 1845 Kosmos, the atlas seeks to radically redefine relationships between the biosphere and the geosphere, while asserting that we humans are inseparably, fluidly entangled with the vibrant matter of our planet. This timely volume repositions elemental materials as dynamic agents of power, and calls for new materialist assemblages to address our crises of climate, health, and inequity.”

- Catherine Seavitt Nordenson,
City College of New York

“Matthew Seibert’s Atlas of Material Worlds reorients us by asking us to consider the earth from the perspective of seven materials—uranium, lithium, clay, crude oil, sand, mud, and metabolite—seven nonhuman protagonists whose fascinating stories take us far from home and deep into our own bodies. Through radical cartography, image, and text, Seibert and his fellow landscape architects map out alternative, non-utilitarian, non-anthropocentric ways of thinking and being in our world, that, if we take this new materialist sensibility seriously, may just lead us away from the brink of climate catastrophe.“

- Susan Barba,
author of geode

Tian Wang, Theodore Teichman, Gaelle Gourmelon, Fanke Su, Chloe Nagraj, Leah Kahler, Alek De Mott, Vida Shen


Foreword The Atlas at hand

Mapping as New Materialist Practice, Politics, + Design



Salt: The Only Rock We Eat



01 uranium

Big Bangs, Metal as Metaphor


Parsing uranium, in road trips and research, I found it to be a lens that throws into relief our ideas of nature and attitudes towards technology across all scales of landscape. Uranium was active in forming our planet long before humans evolved out of eukaryotic slime. Our monumental mounds of mill tailings waste and their inverse—mine-tunnels and nuclear test-site blast-holes—have since then altered earth’s shape and, arguably, our own. We have intertwined our origin stories with its liminal matter. As we navigate around the ethics of our extractive economy and military industrial power games, we find uranium penetrates our cell-walls to disrupt the genetic material inside. Equally insidiously, it has invaded our culture, breaking bonds between those who see it as a futuristic solution to global socioenvironmental traumas and those whose dreams are disturbed by memories of loss. And while this investigation is yet another instrumentalization of the material, what is revealed offers clues for negotiating the complex landscape we have made with it, clarifying the need to adjudicate injustices that together we have wrought.


02 lithium

Tracing the Green Energy Paradox across Battery, Body, Landscape, and Cosmos


Tracing the promise of the world’s green energy future largely built around the promise of lithium and its batteries inevitably leads one to the dry, dusty, and otherworldly landscapes of Chile’s Salar de Atacama, within the driest nonpolar desert on the planet. It leads to the landscapes of salt flats, lagunas, and volcanoes; flamingos, vicunas, and brine shrimp; and the mines, mountains of waste salts, and technicolor evaporation ponds of the lithium extraction industry. The economic might of the lightest metal on the periodic table reveals a many tentacled, scalar entanglement not without consequence. Lithium is not just part of the batteries in our phones, or the promise of a clean electric future, it is also the material stabilizing our psyches, an element embedded in larger landscapes, and existentially tied to the health of unique ecosystems across the globe. Even noble environmentalism is not without its own externalities.



The Bakken Fossil Fuel Frontier


Two landscape architects camp amongst the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota and report upon their findings. The largest crude oil deposit in the lower 48 states, the glacial plains of the Bakken Formation has seen cycles of boom and bust since the 1950s. A geologic overview gives way to social histories reordered by material flows, man camps, and environmental profiteering. Written between the height of the oil boom in 2015 and an economic bust of 2020, “Crude” examines the culture, ecology, and built environment of a landscape shaped by the economics and technologies of extraction.


04 Clay

Spies in the Making, Imperial Oil Economies and the Geographies of Mediterranean Food


The amphora: the most prolific shipping container of the ancient world. Put simply, it is a clay vessel used to transport food, most often olive oil, around the Mediterranean. But the amphora is also a spy. It is our way back into imperial economies, systems of production, shipping, and consumption, and the last remaining material links to the productive landscapes that fed Rome. This is a story about matter out of place; of a single material, clay, unearthed to such an extraordinary extent and with such streamlined precision that it led to one of Rome’s most notable landforms: Monte Testaccio, an ancient landfill and a geologically implausible expression of Rome’s diet, infrastructure and trade over a period of roughly 250 years. This ancient dumping ground is a transactional mountain composed of displaced geologies; it is an epigraphic record of the Spanish and African craftsmen who shaped the amphorae and enabled trans-Mediterranean shipping; it is a three-dimensional map of bountiful olive harvests and the climates that served and eventually failed them; it is a tally of imperial power and a monument to consumption.



825 Miles, or How to Make a Beach


The peculiar circumstances of an artificial island in Florida, Peanut Island, are an entry point into the ways that beach sand interacts with human society, particularly on the coasts of Florida. While it may seem inert, sand is a fundamentally dynamic material which aggregates into other dynamic formations, like dunes, beaches, and the larger “sand-sharing systems” that beaches and dunes are embedded within. Beach sand has shaped the cultural history and urban patterns of Florida; Floridians have responded reciprocally, developing systems of measurement to make beaches comprehensible and deploying an array of machines to make beaches stay put. This reciprocity is symptomatic of the way that human societies, pursuing certainty and permanence, all too often seek to fix and control dynamic landscapes.


06 MUD

And Its Meaning in a Port Town


MUD is a short paean to the humblest of materials, two parts appreciation and one part analysis. Mud is positioned as a foundation of settlement in Baltimore and Buenos Aires, taking the form of ground material, waste product, historical artifact, cultural value system, technological problem, and environmental process. Brian Davis explores some of the mechanisms and causes behind its ubiquity and paradoxical qualities in the context of the technological and environmental responses conjured through port operations and urban expansion during the 20th century. At the end he suggests some future actions and ways of thinking about mud. This perspective is grounded in his current work looking at sediment and settlements in estuaries and large lakes throughout the Americas.



Material as a Physical History of a Relationship


All multicellular organisms rely on symbiosis with microbes for essential functions of metabolism and defense. Microbial communities are the interlockers between multicellular organisms and their material environments, and any relation of humans to the material world is a relation to a metabolite and the microbes that processed it. This interdependence, or relationality, is the case from the scale of an individual microbe to a fish or a human. And, very importantly for the work of this atlas, is also at the telescoping scale extending from planetary assemblages to the economies and ecologies we inhabit.


These onto-cartographic observations of the metabolic pathways of the microbiome allow us to see a model for agency, one that works well beyond the existing anthropocentric paradigm. In looking closely at a specific series of metabolites––the metabolic relationships surrounding the other materials described in the previous chapters then honing on a familiar research site, the Gowanus Canal––my goal is to show the agency they maintain in the given assemblage they are part of, and how microbes tend to play along in that assemblage. Here we traverse scales and orders of magnitude from the molecular to the cosmic through the monumental, communal and highly personal.



Stacy Alaimo is Professor of English and Core Faculty Member in Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon. Her books include Undomesticated Ground: Recasting Nature as Feminist Space (2000); Material Feminisms (co-edited, 2008); Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (2010); and Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times (2016).

Denise Hoffman Brandt is a professor of landscape architecture at the City College of New York, and principal of Hoffman Brandt Projects in New York City. 

Kristi Cheramie, FAAR, is Associate Professor and Head of Landscape Architecture at the Ohio State University’s Knowlton School. Her research explores the ways we respond to and cope with environmental fluctuation. Her first book, Through Time and the City: Notes on Rome, examines historical notions of environmentalism and perceptions of flooding, climate exigencies, and debris.

Brian Davis is Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Virginia. He is a professional landscape architect, a member of the Dredge Research Collaborative, a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome, and the co-founder of Proof Projects. He works on muddy places as cultural landscapes.

Elizabeth Hénaff is a computational biologist with an art practice. She holds an Assistant Professor position at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, where she teaches biodesign. She leads the Laboratory for Living Interfaces, studying the interaction of organisms and their environment through scientific and design enquiries.

Rob Holmes teaches landscape architecture at Auburn University. He is also co-founder of the Dredge Research Collaborative, an independent nonprofit organization that seeks to improve sediment systems through design research, building public knowledge, and facilitating transdisciplinary conversation. 

Ian Quate and Colleen Tuite co-direct Other Fields, an activist-directed, experimental landscape design studio based in Asheville, NC and New York City.

Matthew Seibert is an Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Virginia and co-founder of Landscape Metrics, a visualization studio specializing in science communication. Beyond his present studies in the agency of nonliving materials, his work employs representation as interrogative and speculative tools within historical trajectories, crafting rich parafictions as both critique and potential future.

Thomas Woltz is the owner and principal of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, a 50-person firm with offices in New York City; Charlottesville, VA and Houston, TX. Woltz holds masters degrees in architecture and landscape architecture and was named the Design Innovator of the Year by the Wall Street Journal Magazine in 2013.

traveling exhibition + Book Talk

An augmented reality-enhanced exhibition is currently traveling in promotion of the book, with Matthew Seibert coordinating talks and signings. A reel of the exhibition and AR visualizations are shown below, employing the power of a viewer's mobile device. If you'd like to host a book talk and exhibition please contact Matthew at


Soupy, Soft, and Supporting Worlds upon Worlds




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