800 Acorns: Art and Activism in the Age of Trump
My response to the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States was as much a surprise to me as it was to my friends. I became a land artist. The abandoned strip mines of Eastern Kentucky became my canvas and trees became my medium. If Donald Trump was going to renounce the Paris Climate Accord and try to repeal President Obama's Clean Energy Plan, I could at least get to work planting hardwood trees, knowing each would sequester 22 tons of carbon in its lifetime. Better yet, I could recruit friends to help me plant. We could call ourselves Kentucky Writers and Artists for Reforestation.
So we did. On the first Earth Day after the election, in a freezing rain, about forty of us drove up to a strip mine on the Cumberland Plateau and we planted 2,500 seedlings from dozens of native species, the species that were standing there before the bulldozers arrived and scraped that mountain bare. But did this make me a land artist? In my mind, it did not. We were a bunch of creative types planting trees, which was undeniably a good thing. But it wasn’t art. Not yet.
Any traditional definition of art involves a frame, some kind of confined space. Art, as we usually understand it, takes place in a book, or a gallery or a theater. But I first began thinking about the limitations of such spaces back in the early ‘90s when I discovered the work of Scottish poet, Ian Hamilton Finlay, who was a harbinger of the concrete poetry movement that flourished briefly in the ‘60s. Concrete poetry aimed to liberate language from content and context—to turn words into objects on the page, objects arranged as visual art, not as narrative or lyric. For instance, in one Finlay poem, the repeated words wave collides with the words rock to form new words, like “wrack,” as in a wave-wracked shore. It was all heady stuff, but Finlay’s real genius was to move the word entirely off the page (or the gallery wall) and into the ever-changing context of a garden he began in 1966 on a shepherd’s croft outside Edinburgh. One poem,
is carved into the face of a wooden sundial, where the triangular metal gnomon both measures the hours until evening and shapes the outline of the sky’s “blue sail.” This is a beautiful little poem unto itself, but when embedded in a sundial, in a garden, under a blue sky, it resonates in a way it never could if only pressed to the page.
Rather than moving nature into a museum through the landscape painting of say, Claude Lorrain or Albert Durer, Finlay engraved their signatures into fragments of stone in his garden, inviting us to see the natural world itself as the work of art. The artists’ signatures “framed” the actual landscape so we could view it through the lens of art and thus the lens of reverence. Because we in the West often see the natural world as only a “resource” for human use and abuse—or we don’t see it at all—Finlay’s garden was a revelation to me. He built the base of a stone column around the bottom of a linden tree as a reminder that in ancient Crete, the soul of a tree was eventually transferred into the column of a temple. He converted an old stone barn into a temple to Apollo, asking us to take seriously the idea that the gods still dwell in sacred groves.
Finlay (who died in 2006) sought to reestablish the bonds between nature and culture that had been unraveling since the victory of Christianity over paganism, since the plow and the ax turned sacred groves into so many board-feet. Finlay, who often quoted Virgil in his garden inscriptions, never seemed to have forgotten that in the Aeneid, humans were born from a great forest of oak trees.
As a graduate student contemplating a master’s thesis, I corresponded briefly with Finlay, and I have a letter from 1990, composed on a manual typewriter, that claims, among other things: “Public art is a lonely row to hoe. (Sad joke.)” It probably was lonely for the small group of American land artists like Robert Morris, Robert Smithson and Walter De Maria, who in the late ‘60s started digging their own rows in the American West with massive backhoes. There was nothing particularly “environmental” about the early land artists, as they came to be called, or their earthworks. In fact, much of the early land art consisted of gashes cut into the desert. “Instead of a paintbrush to make his art,” wrote Robert Smithson, “Robert Morris would like to use a bulldozer.”
Land art, or earth art, was a response—like everything else in the ‘60s—to the Establishment. Land artists were unhappy with the gallery economy that turned art into just another commodity to festoon the walls of the rich, not that this was anything new. Nevertheless, the earth artists aimed to take their work beyond the “white cube” of the gallery and to situate it in a landscape where the art could not be commodified because the landscape was the art. They were good Marxists even if they weren’t great ecologists.
In 1970, the same year as the first Earth Day, the Canadian government halted Smithson’s Island of Broken Glass over fears that its two tons of glass shards dropped on a rock outcropping would harm nesting seabirds and seals. It’s hard to imagine today that this never occurred to Smithson himself, who would become famous for creating this country’s most recognized earthwork, Spiral Jetty, a swirling path of basalt that extends out into Utah’s Great Salt Lake like some huge pre-Cambrian organism. But, perhaps stung by the criticism, Smithson began writing letters to mine operators in Ohio, offering to reclaim strip-mine sites in an effort to create what his wife and fellow land artist Nancy Holt called “a functional or necessary aesthetics, not art cut off from society, but rather an integral part of it.” Holt herself took over the project when Smithson died in a plane crash a year later at age 35.
Holt’s idea of an art integral to society became a point of departure from the undeniably masculine violence of the early land art, toward a new earth art that took on ecological dimensions and an environmental ethos. Put another way, she was calling for a marriage of aesthetics and activism.
That’s what I wanted to achieve with our reforestation efforts. We had already done the activist part—planting trees on strip mines—now we needed to somehow elevate that to the level of art. To do so, I felt we needed to incorporate three intermingling genres often associated with earthworks: conceptual art, performance art and sculpture.
The conceptual element came first, when I realized 2017 was the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta’s Charter of the Forest. In 1217, King Henry III sealed the Carta de Foresta as a companion to the more famous document. It established the rights of free men to gather essential resources from the King’s Royal Forest without the punitive threat of amputation or even death, as had existed since William the Conqueror. In essence, the Charter of the Forest allowed commoners to hunt, pasture, and collect fuel for cooking and heating in the Royal Forests. As such, the Charter of the Forest is generally considered the English-speaking world’s first environmental law, the first legal document to recognize the natural realm as a commons and to guarantee rights and privileges to those outside the aristocracy—commoners. What’s more, it set the groundwork for establishing public lands and ensuring their access and protection as a basic human right. America’s national parks celebrated their 100th anniversary in 2016, but their legal origins began 700 years earlier.
So my concept was this: we would find a former strip mine that had been converted into public land and plant 800 acorns to celebrate the Charter of the Forest’s octocentennial. I called up a colleague at the University of Kentucky, Chris Barton. He had started an incredibly successful reforestation initiative called Green Forests Work a few years back. It was the summer of 2017 when I contacted him, and I knew we couldn’t plant saplings in the fall; they wouldn’t get enough rain to survive. But I thought if we planted acorns, they could lie dormant over the winter and wait for spring precipitation. I explained that I was thinking of this venture as an “art installation” to be called 800 Acorns. (Beginning in 1982, the German artist Joseph Beuys began installing 7,000 Oaks around Kassel, Germany as part of Documenta 7, and my project would clearly be a descendent—literally, acorns—of that.) I asked Chris if he thought it was nuts. He said he didn’t and that his organization had some money it could put toward my project. This was one of two lessons that I was quickly learning about being a land artist: get someone else to pay for your crazy idea. What’s more, Chris found a 10-acre site that indeed had been a strip mine before it was converted a few years back into part of the Daniel Boone National Forest.
So I had the conceptual piece in place. As for the sculptural, I know I just wrote dismissively about using bulldozers to create land art, but that’s exactly how 800 Acorns began. Because the soil and rock of an abandoned strip mine has become so compacted by heavy machinery, it would be impossible to plant anything there other than an exotic weed called lezbedeza (which is what coal companies usually plant in the name of “reclamation”). Consequently, before we could start sowing acorns, local bulldozer operators had to come in with huge taildraggers and essentially rip two half-mile troughs into the compacted ground. It was in that loosened rock and soil that we would plant.
My idea was to create a colonnade of oaks: 400 on each side of what would become a walking path. As the oaks grew, their crowns would slowly grow sculpturally, architecturally together into something resembling (at least in my imagination) the nave of a forest cathedral. They would echo the ancient correspondences between forests and temples of the gods, between threes and columns. I thought of Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondences,” which begins: “Nature is a temple where living pillars/ Sometimes let out confusing words.”
I spoke my own possibly confusing words about the future cathedral forest to about fifty writers, artists, students and teachers who gathered one Saturday morning in October to help me plant acorns. And that is the second lesson I learned about land art: delegate work to others, then take credit for the results (I wonder if Robert Smithson placed a single rock on Spiral Jetty). The day was sunny and warm. Chris gave a quick demonstration of how to plunge a dibble stick (a kind of spade) into the ground to create a V in which to drop the acorn, before replacing the soil. Next we had to use a bamboo rod to stake a net tube over the hole to fend off squirrels—that was crucial. After this tutorial, my friend and Irish scholar, Jonathan Allison, read from W.H. Auden’s poem, “Bucolics,” which ends, “A culture is no better than its woods.”
Then we all set off in pairs, as if departing the Ark to replenish a barren world. We staggered the acorns ten feet apart on each side of the trail. The planting was leisurely and there was much conversation, none of which, I was pleased to notice, involved Donald J. Trump. Some participants brought their young children to drop acorns in the ground. Gradually, the foot-high pink net tubes began to punctuate the path, and it occurred to me that for now, we were inadvertently applying a sort of Christo-treatment of this rolling landscape. The tubes looked unnatural and repetitive as with a Christo installation. Yet they were also oddly, aesthetically pleasing. And after all, they were biodegradable and would soon be displaced when saplings knocked them out of the way. Christo too has gotten a lot of volunteer help over the years.
That was the performance element of 800 Acorns. If sculpture—future trees—was the aesthetic aspect, then planting them was at once the activist and “theatrical” aspect, to use art critic, Michael Fried’s term. He meant it as a pejorative, in that performance somehow debases the static contemplation of a piece of sculpture. But because the scale of earthworks is often so vast, one must often participate in the sculpture itself. Around the same time land art was emerging as a genre, Joseph Beuys put forward an idea he called “social sculpture” in which “everyone is an artist.” That, I like to think, is what our crew was that day: a collective of artists who embodied and created a work of both aesthetic and social sculpture.
What’s more, according to another critic, Lucy R. Lippard, the fact that our performance was so repetitive—digging, planting; digging, planting—would suggest to her that it was also a kind of religious ritual, like Trappist monks chanting eight times a day or Buddhist monks bowing over and over as they make pilgrimage to a sacred shrine. “Of those who have tried to replace society’s passive expectations of art with a more active model,” Lippard wrote in 1963, “many have chosen to call their activities ‘rituals.’” Certainly the planting of trees has to be one of the most ancient rituals, right up there with stacking and arranging rocks. The purpose of ritual, I suppose, is to dramatize some system of values. The repetition of that ritual reminds participants of what those values are. It also enacts those values over and over, whether through bowing, chanting or dropping acorns into a hole. I suspect the fifty of us planting trees that October had a diverse set of values and reasons for our ritual: some spiritual, some political, some ecological, some parental. But as we worked, I began to sense that our cumulative repetition, our act of social sculpture, had also produced a certain kind of alchemy. We started to see this space as something other than an abandoned strip mine. In his classic work, The Sacred and the Profane, Mircea Elilade wrote, “Where the sacred manifests itself in space, the real unveils itself, the world comes into existence.” This to me is the crucial connection between art, ritual and the sacred (however we interpret that term). The enactment of, or the idea of the sacred does not change the world in any way; it simply reveals the world for what it is, for what we have been unable to see. It removes our blinders. The oak trees that grow here will be no different than any of the other oaks in this watershed. But the ritual of planting them, and the ritualistic space they will create—a colonnade that frames a clearing, a path—will, I hope, call visitors more intensely into the presence of the natural world. As in Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden, art will be the threshold back into the real.
As we planted, a team of graduate students from the UK School of Design (see second lesson of land art) began to place posts in the ground, staggered at eighth-mile intervals among the acorns. These posts would display pastoral poems laser-etched into handsome oak plaques. My idea was that future visitors to this site could wander down the right side of the path, reading and ruminating on the poems as they walked, then return back on the opposite side, taking in those oak-shaded bucolics. The first poem the grad students mounted was W.S. Merwin’s “Place:”
On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree
not the fruit
the tree that bears the fruit
is not the one that was planted
I want the tree that stands
in the earth for the first time
with the sun already
and the water
touching its roots
in the earth full of the dead
and the clouds passing
one by one
over its leaves
Merwin himself was an inspiration for 800 Acorns, since he has spent the last thirty years planting palm trees—now over 3,000—on a deracinated hillside at his home on Maui. After the students finished placing the plaque, I read it again alongside the poet, Maurice Manning.
“Can you imagine how pleased Merwin would be,” Maurice finally said, “to see his poem standing here, in this setting.” I said I hoped he would, because I hadn’t actually asked his permission. Maurice grinned. “It’s just amazing,” he went on, “to think about all the people who will get to read this poem in this way, in this place.” I also hoped that the poem would draw the landscape closer for them, draw it into greater focus. I hoped all the poems would stand in conversation with the trees for as long as either stood, and that the people who visit this site would join that conversation, even if—especially if—it was held in silence.
But Maurice was right. Unlike traditional sculpture housed in museums, time does play an elemental role in land art—in the sense that the elements will bring change to it. The sculpture we created is a living thing and it will face all the travails of life in the open air. It will grow, die, and eventually, if homo sapiens stay out of the way, be replaced by another successional forest. The poems will in time become illegible and their posts will rot. But by then the trees will have absorbed almost 18,000 tons of carbon. They will provide sanctuary for the region’s 250 species of songbirds, two-thirds of which are in decline because of habitat loss like the strip-mining that once ravaged this particular place. They will prevent mudslides and flooding, and they will purify local drinking water. And when they finally die and decompose, fungi, termites and beetle larvae will turn them into the soil that will start the cycle all over again.
When all our planters reached the end of the two rows, we walked down into a wooded cove that hadn’t been mined. Its damp coolness felt good after a couple hours in the sun, and we gazed around at what we hoped we just had planted—a forest. With his keen eye, biologist Jim Krupa pointed out to the group a baby snapping turtle, lunging on tiny legs for leaf cover. Singer-songwriter Daniel Martin Moore spotted a bright clump of great blue lobelia, one of the season’s last wildflowers. Then poet Frank X Walker read Lucille Clifton’s poem, “the earth is a living thing.” Each line of the poem finishes this thought, before ending that the earth
is a black and living thing
is a favorite child
of the universe
feel her rolling her hand
in its kinky hair
feel her brushing it clean
This mixed mesophytic forest is certainly doing its part to brush the living earth clean. And at least for that day, so had we. With dibble sticks hoisted over shoulders, our collective began a slow march back in the direction we came.
There, where we had begun our planting, architect Bruce Swetnum and a crew of UK graduate students were finishing construction of what would become at once a small meditation hut and a passageway into 800 Acorns. When I pitched to Bruce the idea of possibly helping build a modest kiosk to mark and explain the site, he and his grad students saw a much more compelling opportunity. They first built a model so I could understand their vision, then raised the money to bring it to scale (see both lessons one and two of being a land artist). Their idea for the back wall was to build a thick wire-cage filled with blocks of coal to remind visitors what had been extracted here at one time. In a sense, Bruce and his students were bringing a “dirty secret” to light, bringing the ugly history of this site up to the surface. I loved that. A small wooden bench seemed to float in front of the coal cage, and a cedar wall stood at an angle across from it.
The entrance into this hut is much narrower than the opposite side that faces our planting site. The entrance suggests a threshold into something mysterious, like the entrance into a forest. Then the walls of the hut opens up, releasing visitors onto the path of 800 Acorns. In this sense the hut is, to my mind, a profoundly liminal structure, marking the transition from the gravel road below into a poetic space that has been made so by both the ritual of its creation and the sculptural presence of the oaks.
But before visitors pass through this prism of a building, they can pause on the bench and read, etched into the cedar wall, three poems by three Kentucky poets: James Still, Wendell Berry, and our current poet laureate, George Ella Lyon. Berry’s poem is called “Planting Trees” and describes the poet carrying in a bucket twenty saplings he would plant where others—“the ancient host”—had fallen or been cut. “I return to the ground its original music,” Berry writes, just as we had done that day. He imagines this small stand growing first above the grass, then the weeds, then the “horizon of men’s heads.” “I have made myself a dream to dream/ of its rising, that has gentled my nights,” Berry writes, then he imagines them rising still “when I/ no longer rise in the mornings.”
As we all gathered around the meditation hut, Maurice Manning read “Planting Trees” to the group after explaining to the younger members the singular importance of Berry’s writing over the last sixty years. I thought of one of Berry’s titles, A Timbered Choir, and I thought again about Joseph Beuys’ idea of social sculpture. That notion, it seemed to me, doesn’t apply only to humans. The trees that eventually rise here will themselves be a work of social sculpture. In recent years, scientists have discovered that trees of the same species growing together use their root systems to communicate with one another and exchange nutrients when certain members of the timbered choir are in need. That, I realized, is what Beuys’ 7,000 Oaks project was ultimately about: trying to place human beings back into a symbiotic connection with the nonhuman world—specifically the arboreal world. It was trees, after all, that guided the evolution of our prehensile limbs and binocular vision. They made us who we are. To drop 800 acorns in 800 holes seems like a small act of propitiation for helping to insure our survival over the last 200,000 years.
I would wager that almost everyone who participated in 800 Acorns had probably participated in some kind of anti-Trump march during the past year. And we would all probably do so again. Lord knows, in times like these we need a whole arsenal of strategies: we need litigation, we need marches, we need civil disobedience, we need a strong media that calls bullshit on the daily mendacity emanating from the Capital. But as we slowly dispersed that October day, a young activist stopped and said to me, “You know, you get tired of always being against everything. Sometimes you just want to be for something. That’s what we did here today.”
I agreed. My work was done.