Within the city, public monuments should recapture and revitalize the history of the environment natural to that location. As in war monuments that record the life and death of soldiers, the life and death of natural phenomena such as rivers, springs, and natural outcroppings should be remembered.

Alan Sonfist, Natural Phenomena as Public Monuments, 1969, artist series first presented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

Within this century, many forest species will have to migrate several hundred miles in the direction of the poles in order to escape Global Warming. As for our environment, some types of forest may disappear, while the growing seasons may shift along with the boundaries that divide the grasslands, shrublands, and forests. Human activity, such as our reliance on fossil fuels and destruction of natural habitats, has only rapidly increased the rate by which Global Warming is taking effect.

Human activity can also do the reverse: restore the historical landscape. Green artist Alan Sonfist’s work has addressed this concern from his career’s inception in the 1960’s. Using native plants and innovative designs, Sonfist revives the suppressed horticultural, cultural, and geological history present at each specific site. A diverse array of native plants function as an eco-friendly alternative to traditional landscaping. They are low-maintenance; provide food and shelter for native creatures and beneficial insects; and do not need pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers.

In his environmental project entitled, Birth by Spear Sonfist works to create the fingerprint of the ancient olive tree within an existing olive grove in Florence, Italy. The olive tree is present in Italian cultural records from 5,000 years ago, though recent fossil evidence in Livorno, Italy suggests that olive trees were present as early as 12 million years ago. In addition to the many material uses for which the Olive Tree was and is utilized (including food, medicine, and energy), the cultural significance of this specific tree is beyond remarkable: the Roman goddess of wisdom and war, Minerva, was believed to have given birth to the olive tree through her spear. The olive tree became a symbol of abundance, glory, and peace, and the great poet Homer affectionately called olive oil, “Liquid Gold.”

This landscape is shaped in the resemblance of an ancient olive leaf, partitioned by an indentation in the earth. This allows the viewer’s feet to follow the sloping path as their eyes observe the olive leaf from several different perspectives. The delicate veins of the leaf as well as the silhouette are constructed using the techniques of an ancient Roman road.  Within the concrete of the road there is a series of tiles, depicting the history of the olive tree through words and images. Within the leaf formation is an assortment of other plants, ranging from bushes to flowers that naturally and historically accompany olive trees. The elements effectively fuse into a picturesque ancient landscape. In the heart of the leaf there stands a spear approximately 10 meters high, in homage to the Roman goddess. This landscape is both a monumental, visual marker of time, as well as an educational forum for the community.

The urban center too, reveals its natural and historical beauty in the hands of Alan Sonfist. Time Landscape has adorned the New York City neighborhood of Greenwich Village since 1965, though it was given landmark status in 2000. Alan Sonfist’s original plan was to plant at least 50 time landscapes throughout the city, visualizing the unique diversity of streams, marshes, ponds, wildflowers, grasses, and forest that once existed in a pre-modern Manhattan. Each time landscape would allow a community to identify with its natural past. The landscape itself is a pre-colonial forest consisting of reintroduced indigenous species and designed using the early drawings from English and Dutch settlers. In addition to a unique diversity created by its various stages of forest development (i.e. wildflowers, grasses, pioneer forest, to a mature forest), Sonfist has recreated the original land formations of the area. Every stage is constantly adapting to a consistently changing environment and in fact this is the very essence of Time Landscape– it is a living reflection of the land that surrounds it.

Similarly, above a preschool in New York City, Sonfist designed a roof top garden, what is known as a “green roof”.  It will be both aesthetically beautiful and educational for the community, including a series of spaces where the children can learn about dissimilar aspects of the natural world. The benefits of such a garden are innumerable—the native plants and soil absorb storm and excess water, filter the air, and provide natural and efficient acoustic and thermal insulation. Because of the absorption from the plants, roof drains can also be reduced or eliminated altogether. And of course, it is a lovely sight to see and environment to be surrounded by. Green life in the urban setting is renewed and revitalized; the city returns to its origin «of a Sweet and Wholesome Breath» when, «its uplands [were] covered with “berries, roots, chestnuts and walnuts, beach and oak masts.” Birds sang in the branches, the deer and elk roamed the grassy meadows, the waters swarmed with fish, and the woods were redolent with the scent of the wild grape and of many flowers. Oak trees grew seventy feet height[1]».

Tuscany, Italy is home to Circles of Time, a series of rings representing historical stages of growth specific to that area. The rings consist of (from outer to inner ring): olive trees, geological formations, bronze sculpture garden, and the central virgin forest. Moreover, Time Capsules of the East, located in West Palm Beach, Florida, contain seeds of an entire local forest. Each sculpture is composed of a different metal (either copper, brass, aluminum, stainless steel, or corten steel), which decay at distinct rates. Along with these five diverse metals there exists five corresponding forests. As part of a public space, spectators are encouraged to sit on the time capsules, contemplating the surrounding vegetation and the explanatory engraving located on top of each sculpture.

In nearby Tampa, Sonfist completed a collaborative commission creating a seven-acre park. A portion of this park consists of a large seating area; the seats are in the likeness of leaves. Each individual leaf evokes the history of the vegetation in the community. Additionally, visitors to the park are greeted at the entrance by a series of stone columns encased in vegetative growth. These impressive columns ruminate on the interaction between human cultural history and the singular vegetative history of the community: «Natural phenomena, natural events and the living creatures on the planet [are] honored and celebrated along with human beings and events.»[2]

In a similar fashion, the Centennial sculpture for Kansas City entitled Circles of Life calls into question the role of art in an endangered environment. The large bronze, central sculpture is actually a casting of limbs from endangered tree species. These relics were found on the forest floor, yet miraculously spring to life in sculpture form. The sculpture, surrounded by a ring of indigenous trees and prairie, has been superceded by the momentous growth of the once sapling trees.

The artworks Rocky Mountain Arch in Aspen and Time Totem in Anchorage, Alaska display the foundation of natural history—geology. Rocky Mountain Arch represents the spine of the Rocky Mountains, while the varying geological layers exhibit the chronicle of the hidden geological history. Time Totem depicts the Alaskan fault lines caused by aggressively shifting tectonic plates, recording the tension that results.

With a wingspan of 44 meters and 28 meters The Monument of the Lost Falcon, created for Prince Richard of Germany, is in reverence of the noble bird. The silhouette of the falcon is an earthen wall and beyond that a 2 meter wide space of grey slate, while 750 European larch seedlings are planted in a naturally wild pattern on the interior of the falcon. As many as 350 of these seedlings are inherently indigenous, but can no longer be naturally found in the area. In its greatest irony, the complete outline of the falcon is only visible to a bird.

Alan Sonfist’s art works expose the historical beauty to be found in every site, creating a tantalizing visual tale. «The concept of what is a public monument, then, is subject to re-evaluation and redefinition in the light of our greatly expanded perception of what constitutes the community.»[3] In the end it is with a purpose; the landscapes and artworks educate and inspire an understanding of and a desire to protect the fragile yet resilient, natural world.

[1] Reginald Pelham Bolton, Indian Life of Long Ago in the City of New York, Crown, New York 1972.
[2] R. P. Bolton, Indian Life of Long Ago in the City of New York cit.
[3] Alan Sonfist, Natural Phenomena as Public Monuments cit.