The Aesthetics of Regeneration
I approach the surviving willow trees through mud that resembles anthracite. Its almost-lustrous, dark gray color declares the history of this ground, which was once part of an open-pit coal mine in eastern Pennsylvania. The coal silt under my feet is known to contain high concentrations of heavy metals like arsenic, mercury, and cadmium. Although the threats to biological life posed by these elements are now well-known, residual pollution from abandoned coal mining operations remain poorly contained across the United States. At hundreds of sites like this one, the poisons gradually leach into surrounding groundwater.1
When mining operations ceased here, little would have grown in this scorched earth. Half a century later, I navigate patches of dormant cattails and wetland grasses protruding from the gray mud that sucks at my boots. The plants look dead, but they are not. These are merely the final days before spring will crash the weary gates of winter. The plants’ vitality will soon rise from their hibernating roots, resurrecting greenery. But for today, only the most anxious messengers of the coming season are yet visible, and the willow trees are among them. In the distance ahead, a foam of yellow buds is bursting along their slender branches.
The tiny willow sparks were bright enough to notice from far above, as I first looked down into the old mining pit from a parking lot that services an Exxon Mobil and a Burger King. It was here that I took out my low-resolution images of the artist Harriet Feigenbaum’s 1985 project, Erosion and Sedimentation Control Plan for Red Ash and Coal Silt Area — Willow Rings, to verify that I had come to the right place. Feigenbaum originally planted two concentric circles of willows around the coal sedimentation pond below, a planting scheme designed to encourage healthy soil accumulation and prevent erosion that would drive contaminants into the watershed. However, the expansion of an elevated highway in the early 1990s cut directly across the site, overtaking part of the original planting. Subsequent references described Feigenbaum’s project as “derelict.”2 I had come to see if it was true.
The pond was still apparent below—much bigger now, in fact—and while just three willow trees along its bank vaguely suggested the original circular planting, I thought it was unlikely they had grown there spontaneously. Most of the other trees below were young black locusts, a rugged species tolerant of salt runoff from the highway above and heavy metals from the ground below. Incidentally, locusts are the only kind of tree that survives on my barren, windswept block in Brooklyn. With malignant thorns that have traditionally been used as nails, this tree is an adept survivor. By comparison, willow is fragile and picky.
An old man walked along the guardrail of the parking lot toward me, enjoying a smoke while his car filled up at the Exxon. He looked down into the pit briefly, but didn’t linger upon the mostly stark, colorless view. Instead he cast a curious stare at me, with my binoculars and notebook and camera, and his gaze made me feel ten years old. I was shy at that age, but possessed by a bold fascination with refuges of biodiversity hidden in plain sight throughout the densely-settled woodlands of eastern suburbia. I sought out these places—stripes of emerald between strip malls, meadows upon abandoned developments—not in search of a mythic “wilderness” as much as proof of a living world beyond human control. Sometimes, the best an ecosystem can hope for in the Anthropocene is to be overlooked. Feigenbaum’s project site was just such a place; although the land is preserved from development by the local government, which uses it to access a nearby municipal reservoir, it has otherwise existed in a state of neglect for decades. A stone’s throw from Interstate 81, it has fallen into a precious crack in industrial land use and suburban sprawl.
The aesthetic of regeneration is different from the picturesque. It is about the perception of a certain type of beauty found in the surprising incarnation of life as it emerges from neglect, or death. Down in the mining pit, locust trees grow up out of stinking dark water, but as I walk by, a group of colorful wood ducks fly out from their undergrowth, shouting in annoyance. The surface of the next pond I pass is red with iron and shimmers weirdly, likely too acidic to support much life, but not ten yards from it a little stream babbles clear. Beside my own boot prints in the ashen mud, I can see the unmistakable tracks of a turtle. Everything here carries an abnormal gray tinge, and yet I am clearly witnessing the slow and difficult birth of a wetland.
I remain preoccupied with the willow trees ahead of me, for they are evidence of the “artwork” to which I have come in pilgrimage. I am actually looking at the trees through my camera’s viewfinder when I cross an invisible threshold, causing the loud chorus of spring peepers to fall quiet. I lower the camera, casting about at the abrupt silence. If I hadn’t done so, I might soon have tripped over one of a dozen neatly-chiseled wooden spears that protrude from the ground ahead of me. Even in this unexpected place, it takes only a moment to register what they are. Turning from the willow trees toward the old sedimentation pond, I see a beaver dam rising almost two feet high, and beyond it, upon the pond’s bank, a mounded lodge. I have stumbled into a beaver’s homestead.
Wetlands are remarkable in their multi-faceted ability to protect water from pollutants, including heavy metals.3 And beavers do not just inhabit wetlands, they create them. Alongside the recovery of Castor canadensis from its near-extinction in the nineteenth century, research has emerged showing that a whole succession of ecosystems is set in motion by its dam-building activity. To put it briefly, beaver dams slow the movement of streams and rivers, causing silt retention that feeds riparian vegetation, thus creating food supplies for the beavers and thousands of other species. Eventually, floodplains created by broken dams become fertile meadows.4
Indigenous peoples of the Great Plains saw beavers as a “keystone species” long before that modern ecological term existed. Certain northern plains tribes refused to kill beavers, much to the disappointment of white settlers who came seeking pelts in the early 1800s. Back east, the exploding fur industry relied on the labor and expertise of native woodland peoples who had engaged in beaver hunting and population control for millennia. But tribes further west held a cultural reverence for the animals that was inseparable from the awareness that their activity ensured the habitability of the land. Unlike in waterlogged eastern forests, surface water on the prairie becomes scarce in the absence of beaver dams. Blackfoot mythology portrays beavers as keepers of medicine and secret knowledge.5
People—and perhaps especially artists—still have much to discover from beavers about the complexity of the built environment, and how we might become better collaborators within it. The beaver is a world-maker. Like the human, it alters its environment in macroscopic ways to suit its own needs. In the process, it engineers ecosystems characterized by their exceptional biodiversity (forty percent of the planet’s plant and animal species live or breed in wetlands). Conflict has often emerged between beavers and humans as their earthworks converge, particularly in places where dams routinely flood roads and fields. The nuisance of the beaver has been a feature of twentieth-century infrastructure, but as humans recognize the need for change in the ways we coexist in collapsing ecosystems, perhaps collaboration can succeed competing visions. As a creative process, collaboration is less about compromise than the discovery of shared values.
Interspecies collaboration is integral to an aesthetic of regeneration. Anna Tsing wrote in 2017 that “resurgence is the work of many organisms, negotiating across differences, to forge assemblages of multispecies livability in the midst of disturbance.”6 How can art meaningfully intersect with this process? As T.J. Demos recently asked, how might art become “a multispecies affair, and not simply the reserve of human exceptionalism?”7 The site of Willow Rings forms an important study. Willow trees are a preferred food source for beavers, and it is very possible that Feigenbaum’s planting helped facilitate an adequate habitat for them. What does it mean for art if we consider that beavers have become collaborators in the work? Certainly, they are now central actors in a potentially derelict project with which they share fundamentally the same goal: to transform the site into a good place to live. In the effluence of the beaver’s work, the project’s other collaborators also play their part, not least the tough-as-nails locust trees, which fix nitrogen into the soil, and the persistent willows that beckoned this writer to discover it all.
Interspecies collaboration can enrich the answers to some of art’s fundamental questions—who is it for? And what is the role of the artist? A regenerative work of art may ultimately be a living system, a wheel upon which every participant turns, vanishing into the traces they leave. Just as Feigenbaum’s efforts may have invited the beavers to the site, the work which the nonhuman organisms have since accomplished may invite another human collaborator who could contribute their own specialized labor, perhaps to test and remove the heavy metals that have been successfully captured in the wetland biomass.
Rachel Carson wrote that “there is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”8 This feeling might help describe the circular character of regenerative art. A conventional work of art derives power from stability. It persists across time, remaining animated by contexts that shift around it and make it into a powerful anchor of meaning. Static works of art are always monumental, always tied to conceptions of linear time. By contrast, Willow Rings suggests a form of art that echoes time’s cycle. It is ritualistic, both in the sense that it is fundamentally a participation rather than an object, and in that the power of its gesture grows with repetition. The world is always in the process of being made, and while static art crystallizes indelible moments in the process, an aesthetic of regeneration leaves imprints upon the process of world-making itself.
It is easy to think of regeneration as un-aesthetic, or as a purely activist aim for art. Mel Chin once described it as “an invisible aesthetic,” although I’d argue that the purpose of an aesthetic is to make the things we find valuable more visible.9 Regeneration is invisible only to the eye trained to ignore non-human agency. And while regenerative art can certainly have practical impacts that double as conceptual experiments—demonstrating, for instance, that it is possible for humans to contribute to biodiversity—it must not be limited to pragmatic measures of “impact.” Artists cannot be given the responsibility of saving the world. It is hardly art’s job to fix pollution or restore wetlands, in other words, to solve collective problems of environmental regulation and sustainability.10
On the level of its unclear outcome, Willow Rings mirrors the enigmatic ways that the Earth transmutes life’s traces. With or without Feigenbaum’s intervention, the contaminated site would have gradually recovered, because that’s what the living planet does. But participation is an opportunity, because the participants in the work are also its beneficiaries. The work of the regenerative artist is to engage the human (or the posthuman, if you prefer) in a contract of sympoiesis, becoming an integral shareholder in a collaboratively-generated world.11 The role which Feigenbaum’s Willow Rings has played in the regeneration of this ecosystem is unquantifiable, but that is precisely what makes it art. What is the “impact,” for instance, of Michelangelo’s Pietà? Foregoing an accounting of the artist’s accomplishment, we do not expect her work to be anything more than art. Nor anything less.
- See Prafulla Kumar Sahoo et al, “Trace Elements in Soils around Coal Mines: Current Scenario, Impact and Available Techniques for Management,” Land Pollution Rep 2 (2016): 1–14. and https://gridphilly.com/blog-home/2022/8/1/abandoned-mines-spewing-toxic-water-is-the-unwanted-legacy-of-coal/
- See Hilary Anne Fronst-Kumpf, “Reclamation Art: Restoring and Commemorating Blighted Landscapes,” https://nmr.collinsandgoto.com/weblinks/frost/FrostTop.html and Barbara C. Matilsky, Fragile Ecologies: Artists’ Interpretations and Solutions (Rizzoli, 1992), 45-56.
- Prabhat Kumar Rai, “Heavy metal pollution in aquatic ecosystems and its phytoremediation using wetland plants: an ecosustainable approach,” Int J Phytoremediation, Mar-Apr 2008, 10(2):131-58. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18709926/.
- See Ben Goldfarb, Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter (Chelsea, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018).
- Rosalind Grace Morgan, “Beaver Ecology / Beaver Mythology,” dissertation, University of Alberta, 1991. https://doi.org/10.7939/R3SB3X689.
- Anna Tsing, “A Threat to Holocene Resurgence is a Threat to Livability” (unpublished manuscript, 2015). Quoted in Donna Haraway, “Symbiogenesis, Sympoiesis, and Art Science Activisms,” in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, ed. Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elain Gan, Nils Bubandt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), M35.
- T.J. Demos, Beyond the World’s End: Arts of Living at the Crossing (Duke University Press, 2021), 19.
- Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder (New York: Harper Collins, 1998),100-101.
- Chin used the phrase “invisible aesthetic” in the NEA grant for his project Revival Field (1990), which is probably the best-known regenerative contemporary art project to date.
- Ben Davis recently expressed this political risk of ecological art, writing, “remediationism can conceal lowered expectations…the stress on tangible, small-bore gestures fills the space left by the retreat from attempting to imagine large-scale change.” The sentiment can certainly apply to Willow Rings, where the artist’s planting is an alternative to effective environmental regulation and government-sponsored cleanup of the mining waste. From Davis, Art in the Afterculture: Capitalist Crisis and Cultural Strategy (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2022), 210.
- Sympoiesis means “making with,” proposed as an alternative to “autopoiesis,” acknowledging that all creation and organization of life is collective.