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Restoration Art

Focusing on nature’s power to reclaim.

By Jennifer Hattam

In the quiet moments before dawn, a lone figure picks his way along the rocky Nova Scotia coast. Following a river inland, he stops in a small valley ringed with trees. The grasses are dry now, brittle as the sheets of ice strewn among them. The man begins to gather small slabs of ice, melting them slightly in his hands and then letting them freeze onto one another, stacking and weaving them into a pinecone-shaped cairn as tall as a person. As the sun comes up, the tide creeps in. The rising water lifts the scattered ice sheets from the ground, so they can float back out to sea. The cairn creaks and trembles, bowing toward the tide but not yet giving in. Eventually, though, this incongruous object will yield. Like most of British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy’s constructions of stones, leaves, feathers, and twigs, it was made to disappear.

Submitting to the weather and working between the tides, Goldsworthy crafts his transitory sculptures—which often live on only as photographs—in the open air. He digs sinuous trails through shifting red sands; perches a giant snowball in a stand of trees, where it waits to melt; gathers fallen leaves and spirals them around a hole in the earth, knowing that soon the wind will carry them away. Although his artistic pursuits have taken him from Australia to the North Pole, Goldsworthy returns again and again to his home terrain in southwest Scotland, where he feels part of a continuum of people who have farmed and worked the land. "My art is a way of learning and looking," says Goldsworthy. "Things happen through the hands that can never happen through the eyes." Engaging with nature on its own terms, Goldsworthy neither destroys it nor leaves it alone, but rather strives to let his art become part of the earth’s cycles.

Since the mid-19th century, landscape artists have generally fallen into one of two camps: the romantics, like photographer Ansel Adams and the painters of the Hudson River School, who portrayed nature as a pure and transcendent place that must be protected and left alone, and the realists, documentary-style photographers like Richard Misrach and other members of the "New Topographics" movement, who cast an unflinching eye on the devastation human contact has already wrought. Rather than adhere to either path, a cadre of newer artists is reflecting—and helping create—more complex relationships with the environment. In their eyes, nature is neither an elusive Eden nor a passive victim, but an active force, sweeping Goldsworthy’s ephemeral edifices out to sea, pushing up through the sidewalk at an old army arsenal in the Illinois prairie, and covering an abandoned Manhattan rail line with wildflowers.

Terry Evans spent two years observing and photographing the transformation of the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant, 40 miles outside Chicago. Once the world’s largest TNT factory, this long-abandoned chemical works and bomb assembly plant was protected in 1996 as the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, the nation’s first federally designated tallgrass prairie park. Volunteers, environmental groups, and government agencies are now restoring its 19,000 acres of prairie, woodlands, savannas, and wetlands. But before the land was transferred to the public and the official restoration and bioremediation process began, "nature was already moving back in," says Evans, a Chicago-based photographer best known for her studies of the Kansas prairie. "This carefully and formally organized landscape was becoming wild. There had been thousands of people working there, and you got the feeling that they had just up and left—like Pompeii."

The eeriest of Evans’s images document this absence: the dust-covered rotary phone, papers, and folding chair in a murky green room, the rusty file cabinet amid charred rubble. But everywhere in this ruin she also saw signs of life: small grasses and a pale-lavender flower tracing a manhole cover, ivies crawling up an old firehouse wall, leafy branches tapping on the window of a crumbling furnace room, ready to reclaim it.

As she walked, Evans discovered layers of stories: not just of the military facilities and the narrow-gauge railroad that supplied them, but of the farmsteads bought out by the army in 1940, of the tribes expelled from the area in 1833, and, farther back in time, of the tallgrass prairie that once covered half the state. Though scarred by war, carved by canals, drained for agriculture, and encroached on by the city, some of that old prairie remains, buried and battered, but ready to flourish—with a little help. Because of the damage done at Midewin, if left alone the land would succumb to non-native weeds and shrubs. Volunteers are collecting and planting native seeds, which they store in the old "igloos" that once housed TNT. "We tend not to take responsibility for the things we abandon, so it was extraordinary that so many people took responsibility for this land," says Evans. "They’re transforming it back to itself."

The West Side of Manhattan could not seem farther from the midwestern prairie. But when Joel Sternfeld walks along the 1.5-mile High Line, a disused elevated freight-train track cutting through Hell’s Kitchen, Chelsea, and the Meat Packing District, he too sees a landscape inching back to what it was—and a group of people gently helping the process along. "It’s a very rural experience walking the railroad tracks," says Sternfeld, who spent a year photographing the High Line as it reverted to its wild state. Purple heather grows beneath a graffiti-covered smokestack, and small trees spring up between boarded-up buildings. Sternfeld’s large-format images capture every detail: the budding flowers and broken windows, the blades of grass and the wall-size Gap ads. In the foreground, there is serenity and space; in the distance, skyscrapers and construction cranes. "The High Line is the ingress and egress to a great city," Sternfeld says. "You’re looking up at the Empire State Building, but you’re connected to Iowa, to Nebraska, to the rest of the nation."

The High Line, which carried goods in and out of New York for almost half a century, has been silent for two decades. Few now notice the decaying structure 30 feet above their heads. "I lived in the neighborhood for 14 years before I understood what the High Line was," says Joshua David, who helped found Friends of the High Line to save its seven acres as public space. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s new administration embraced the proposal in December, and has taken steps to begin negotiating with the rail owner. Although David admits that much of the greenery atop the High Line will have to be removed to do structural repairs, he hopes that its wildness can be encouraged anew. "The landscape has planted itself in gravel, yet it’s self-sufficient and seasonally rich," he says. "There’s something completely different each time you go up."

A derelict rail line and an abandoned bomb factory may not seem like places to find hope and beauty, but neither, at one time, did many of the forests and mountains we now cherish. Before the 1800s, wilderness was perceived as a threatening place. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution brought public-health problems to the city, and the wealthy in Europe fled to the country and the coast, that wild nature became associated with healthful regeneration. Poets, painters, and later, photographers, shaped our modern conceptions of pristine wilderness—and glorified it as the only kind of land that matters.

"As the world becomes a very urban place, preservation of urban open space becomes more and more critical," Sternfeld says. "If we can save the High Line in New York, perhaps people around the world can take heart and think about places in their own cities that can be preserved." In the United States alone there are 150,000 miles of abandoned rails and 500,000 acres of old military lands poised to revert to nature.

Evans and Sternfeld give these forgotten corners the same careful attention that Ansel Adams gave Yosemite. Their photographs are neither celebratory nor indicting, but tender and full of promise. "I see the scars and the damage, and I’m very upset, but it’s too easy to cast blame," says Evans. "It’s much harder to begin to work together. So it’s important to me to show the land healing itself and point to the engagement of people in that process."

Like Andy Goldsworthy pinning iris blades together with thorns and setting them afloat in a pond, or constructing an army of stone arches that march across the damp sand to confront the rising tide, we are a part of nature—not apart from it—and must fit one way or another into its cycles. As nature shapes and eventually erodes his creations, so too can it reclaim what we have damaged, if we give it some room to thrive. Yet like many of Goldsworthy’s constructions, this can be precarious work. In the documentary film Rivers and Tides, Goldsworthy speaks of working close to change, of taking his art to the verge of collapse. We have taken our world to the verge of collapse. We need to find the balance, and art can show the way.


Jennifer Hattam is Sierra’s associate editor.

For more about Andy Goldsworthy and the movie Rivers and Tides, see www.filmforum.com/rivers.html. Although Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie remains largely closed during cleanup of the site, guided tours are available. Visit www.fs.fed.us/mntp/visiting/tours.htm or call (815) 423-6370 for details. To learn about preserving the High Line, contact Friends of the High Line at (212) 631-9188 or www.thehighline.org.

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