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Regeneration on Tree Mountain

Robert Louis Chianese

Letting Form Follow Function

Because of its overwhelming presence, Denes’s work might suggest that restoration Earth art needs to play out its drama on a grand stage. But it can also perform effectively on a more accessible scale.

A small art park near my home in Ventura, California, incorporates an elegantly humble work titled Pepper Tree Garden (2008), which passively cleans runoff water by channeling it through a rocky trough planted with native filtering plants. Water then swirls around a large shallow basin, its sides lining the drain with wire-secured limestone wedges. These eight patterned gabions of limestone deacidify the water before it sets out on its underground return, via a drain system, to the ocean miles away. Water-cleansing sections of landscaping like this are known as bioswales. Signage in the park explains that Pepper Tree Garden sits at the end of natural hillside drainage and over a water-pumping station for hillside residences. It therefore extends and complements natural water flow in the area.

City-sponsored eco-artist Kathryn Miller, in collaboration with Andreas Hessing, chose pieces of limestone that hold fish fossils for the basin structure, perhaps to connect the ancient fish with the modern ocean fish the cleansed water helps maintain. This imaginative blending of paleontology and biochemistry yields effective and pleasing results. Local botany and basic principles of hydrology are all the rest of the science required to make the bioswale work.

The utility of Pepper Tree Garden as a natural rainwater purifier is obvious. Its beauty stems from its simplicity, plainness, and directness—standard attributes of good style in many endeavors. We’re back to “form follows function.” Such a traditional aesthetic connects beauty with utility: At appropriate scale, Pepper Tree Garden forms the terminus of the natural slope that contours the park, drawing us and everything else to it. The white octagon, with its lollipop shape and decorative fossil stonework, contrasts with the green growing things around it. Is it an umbrella for catching rain? The built and the natural coexist and complement each other, with beneficial environmental effects.

Such Earth art points the way to using art, environmental science, and basic engineering for ingenious, low-cost projects. The future of restorative Earth art may lie with both modest works like Pepper Tree Garden and the grand eco-artistry of renowned figures such as Denes. Fusing science and art can stimulate both to help green the planet in very earthy ways.

Restorative Earth artworks may more broadly revive that older aesthetic wherein beauty and utility serve each other as forms of healing. Denes finally steps forward and champions such an aesthetic, even though postmodernists might find it quaint. Pieces such as Tree Mountain and Pepper Tree Garden may wind up redefining both art and our relationship to the environment—recovering the latter from neglect and damage, while replenishing our humanness, diminished by our modern disconnections from the natural world.

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