Artists and scientists collaborate to create giant river sculpture

Carson Valley
© Simon Williams for The Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy teamed up with two artists to create a habitat-enhancing sculpture made from natural materials.

Artists Mary O'Brien and Daniel McCormick have been creating art that benefits nature for the past 30 years. They work to solve environmental problems through art, often by installing structures that will eventually become part of the natural landscape. “What we do is work with natural systems,” said McCormick. “We seek to make solutions-based art.”

Artists and scientists collaborate to create giant river sculpture © Simon Williams for The Nature Conservancy

O'Brien and McCormick’s latest project is helping The Nature Conservancy’s efforts to restore sections of the Truckee and Carson Rivers in Nevada. With the help of conservation scientists and community volunteers, the artists installed a 350-foot serpentine sculpture along the Carson River at River Fork Ranch. It’s woven from branches and live willow saplings, and will benefit the local habitat in a number of ways. They'll turn their attention to the Truckee river next, and hope to begin work in the fall.

Several decades ago, ranchers dredged and straightened the rivers in an effort to reduce property damage from flooding. In the process, they piled the soil from the river’s bed along the banks and created a berm. “So, when you have a flood, the river can’t go over its banks,” said Duane Petite, the director of the Carson River Project at River Fork Ranch. The dredging succeeded in drying out the property, but also damaged the wetland habitat at the same time.

The Nature Conservancy purchased the ranch back in 2000, and has been working to restore the wetlands by removing the berm and returning curves to the river’s path, a process called re-meandering. Working with O'Brien and McCormick is the latest phase in that process.

Artists and scientists collaborate to create giant river sculpture© Simon Williams for The Nature Conservancy

“We put in a large serpentine structure that was designed to sit in the low points of the floodplain, where the water will settle,” said McCormick. The wetlands are used by dozens of species of birds, and are home to western pond turtles and northern leopard frogs.

The living sculpture will anchor the soil and prevent erosion, while filtering out pollutants before they reach the river. It will also serve as a speed bump, slowing waters that flow through the area and allowing them to sink into the soil and replenish the water table. Finally, the woven sculpture will create a thicket where plants and animals can find shelter.

One might think that artists and conservation scientists might not always see eye to eye, but O'Brien and McCormick have lots of experience with this type of collaboration. “We have the scientists as our guides,” said McCormick. “We relate to scientists as we would relate to other artists, with a lot of respect and acknowledgment of what they’re doing. We have to develop a relationship with them.”

To evaluate the success of the project, The Nature Conservancy has been monitoring the bird species along the river and testing the water quality. Already, they’ve seen some progress. “If you could see it before we started, it really was like an alkaline desert,” said O'Brien. Even before they completed the project, she said that plant and animal life were starting to flourish.

Eventually, the structure will be overgrown with new plants and teeming with birds, bugs, frogs and turtles. Petite described this approach to art as ephemeral. “They’re designing art that changes over time,” he said. “I think that their work really evokes the ever-changing qualities of the natural world.”

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