Eleven years ago, I no longer drove daily past the Robert Morris Earthwork at Johnson Pit #30. My job at the never-viable dot-com in the Kent Valley no longer seemed worth going to (and I was upset by what I thought were advances made by the mad-scientist VP, CTO, or whatever he was, contributing to my decision), and I took a part-time job at the university copying tapes in the basement of Kane Hall. It was a strange time, a few weeks of golden fall and then the unreality of September 11. That unreal present was a fitting juxtaposition of the still-frame past this artifact comes from, to my remembered child mind a time of black-and-white photographs, towering adults, and magic mystery.
I found it by accident while trying to find a direct route from home to the dot-com, curling around winding streets and avoiding freeways for blind hairpin turns and double-black-diamond hills. I remember the tarred posts as the first things I saw and the wide bowl of tan grass. What is that? After work one day I stopped and found.
Johnson Pit #30, the sign explains, was a gravel pit from 1911 until the Forties, when it was abandoned. The site overgrew with the scrub trees and junky bushes of forgotten space, which the county acknowledged as fact in 1974. By the tail end of the country’s pinko period in 1979, one breath before Reagan threw out the grim reality of droopy drawers Carter, someone thought to give this physical instatiation of a natural thing used up and thrown away to an artist. See what you can do, I imagine a green-brimmed old salt in a basement records room saying as he signed over a yellowed paper.
Utterly but in the spirit of the Guggenheim artists who challenged themselves to make paintings that showed nothing, Morris had the task of taking something become a nothing and reforming it to something. A non-useful non-place was the most significant thing he could make, he decided:
Artists participating in art as land reclamation make moral as well as aesthetic choices. There are more choices available than either a cooperative or critical stance. But it would be a misguided assumption to suppose that artists hired to work in industrially blasted landscapes would necessarily and inevitably choose to convert such sites into idyllic and reassuring places, thereby socially redeeming those who wasted the landscape in the first place. (Robert Morris, 1979)
I remember my first few stops at the tiny parking lot and looking at the paint and bird-splattered but otherwise unvandalized sign, and not quite getting Morris. I am ashamed to admit it–I was 31 and should have been able to figure it out. Now, his main point is obvious enough: turning the place into a park implies that using it up in a way meaningful to humans was morally good. I realize now that he has made a not-park: the scar is covered over so the gaping, gushing wound is no longer visible, but its smoothed outline, the Gestalt forcing of place and dimension, are emphasized. He made a beautiful crater.
Like Yellow Aster Butte, this place feels a way I can’t describe well. It takes me far back to childhood, early elementary school, my time in Canada (but not before) and early Texas: let’s say 1976 to 1980 calendarwise. The place is big, much bigger than me. Everything is visible but this must be a trick–why would grownups spend so much time and effort on this thing? Maybe aliens made it, or ghosts, like they made the trainless Underground Railroad.
(An aside: we lived briefly in Ripley, Ohio, a stop on the Underground Railroad between Kentucky and Ohio. I remember going to a tiny history park high up the riverbank with the usual slave cabins and a woman dressed in period costume. I remember running back along a path into the towering woods. My memory is still clear: I knew there weren’t really trains, not the big metal machine kind, but there had to be a train of some kind. I remember my parents laughing: oh, look, he thinks it’s a real train, and I clearly remember no, they don’t get it but I didn’t want to disappoint them. I peeked under an immense black log and they all laughed, and I knew doing it would make them laugh. Then I stood facing the green curtain of forest and wondered where it went, what friends were there, if there were monsters–not the Sesame Street kind but the other ones.)
Going down the circles the space comes together but never closes. The grass, low and brown, has few weeds. The paths are walked enough that bare dirt shows through, the creosote bench and steps worn down to crumbling shells. Kids have pulled up a few of the creosote trees and spelled out I ♥ U with them and rocks, but this is a distraction, nothing more than dust on a window. The place feels used but only on the surface. Beneath the grass the essence is unharmed, and cannot be harmed.
The space feels set aside in the way religious spaces aspire to but never achieve. Those are human-made and serve human purposes. Intellectually this is the same thing, but it doesn’t feel like that at all. It feels more like a mountaintop, or an antenna. A great pause is being transmitted and received simultaneously and throughout time.
This crummy phone picture is from the leftmost far hillock in the top image. If you were a deer or a rabbit looking out at the forest that had once been here, you would see this. I haven’t driven this back road in years. Ten years ago nothing was here: a few houses up the hill behind the earthwork, then fields in the distance, a KOA campground along the main east-west road. Capitalism’s tireless cancer has filled in the fields and valleys with McHouses and condos. A set of very nice townhouses abuts the earthwork’s left side, all shiny windows with dreamcatchers. The deer-you or bunny-you would look into these things as alien visions. This grass-hole-thing you understood, at least a little. All the rest was light, metal, noise and speed.
In the late Seventies I heard loudly the cries of those who said the Earth was being ravaged, that the great mother was calling out, that we needed to slow down, drop out, turn away from the plastic fantastic pumped out by Madison Avenue. Animated PBS characters told wrenching tales of their homes being bulldozed. My Ranger Rick magazine had tips for approaching adults to ask them to turn down the radio, get their car tuned up, turn off things they didn’t need. I had dark dreams not quite nightmares about Watership Down.
This earthwork is from that time. As an adult it would have been heady and serious, a battle for the ages, and for a time it was. As a little kid it was spectral and weird. I lived surrounded by forest as a young child and would spend days in it, running around and looking at leaves and bugs, climbing branches and looking into sunlit distances. No rabbits or deer ever came to express their anger at my parents building a house in their space, wanted to know what I, personally, was doing to stop the bulldozers. I couldn’t tell if they would. It was another thing that didn’t add up, like the Apollo missions versus Star Trek. Weren’t they both visions? The Muppets didn’t explain.
Texas had no forest. I didn’t meet other kids who wanted to go exploring in the woods or who even knew what that meant. God was frequently mentioned. The bulldozers seemed fine with Him. He seemed like Santa but I never pointed this out. In retrospect this was fortunate. Everyone chomped their gum secure with blank eyes and there was no getting in. The only way out of prison was by car. I had these thoughts, or at least parts of them. In high school a few of them started to fit, but by then I was too angry and tired to think well.
As children we are not so much innocent but closer to the wordless power that lives in everything. Nobody has to be taught this. It comes out of everything; everything is talking to you with big round eyes. In this place, that time is held still. The earth is doing its work. The bulldozers brought out a shape that was already there and that had always been there. After that, there was no need of them, and they went back to the mindless command of everyone else deep in forgetting.