Slow Trees in Manhattan

Sarah Moore

Palavras-chave: slow; ecocritical; long history; landscape; durable

Participação: Presencial

In 1965, nineteen-year old Alan Sonfist, imagined a project, Time Landscape, as a living monument to the vast forests that once covered Manhattan Island. After years of research on precolonial botany, geology, and history, and in cooperation with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, he and local community members transformed a twenty- five by forty-foot rectangular plot at the northeast corner of La Guardia Place and West Houston Street, New York City, into a slowly developing forest that recreated by sylvan landscape of Manhattan inhabited by Indigenous North Americans and encountered by European settlers in the early seventeenth century. Initially planned as representing three stages of forest growth, Time Landscape quickly lost its crisp boundaries between grasses, saplings, and grown trees and is now, forty-four years since its planting in 1978, a verdant forest in miniature: birch, beech, red cedar, black cherry, oak, white ash, and elm trees, among others. In contrast to monumental earthworks from the same era that involved major, rapid transformations of often remote sites—Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970, for example—Sonfist employed the slow process of time and regional flora as his medium within a dense urban setting. Evoking the herbaria and seed banks of the nineteenth century that collected nearly extinct flora with the hope of preserving nature for future generations and the work of many artists of the time who sought to capture a landscape that was rapidly receding due to the “ravages of the axe,” as painter Thomas Cole cautioned in 1836, Time Landscape addresses a complex and uncertain future and questions of sustainability.

This paper addresses Sonfist’s Time Landscape from two perspectives: within the context of nineteenth-century practices, artistic and botanical, that faced an uncertain future and imagined North America’s forests as standing at the precarious intersection of the long and slow history of the natural world and the expedient interests of colonial expansion and economic gain; and as a durable decolonizing visual practice that upsets the crisp boundaries between “nature” and “culture.” Moreover, it proposes Time Landscape as a model for slow performative ecocritical practice leaning toward collaboration, interconnectedness, and sustainability.


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Cole, Thomas. “Essay on American Scenery,” American Monthly Magazine 1 (January 1836), 1-12.
Kusserow, Karl. Picture Ecology: Art and Ecocriticism in Planetary Perspective. (Princeton: Princeton University Art Museum, 2021).
Morton, Timothy. Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).


Sarah J. Moore is Professor, History of American Art, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, USA. Research areas: shifting terrains of identities and geographies in the art of the United States within the interdisciplinary arenas of world’s fair studies and ecocriticism. Currently a Visiting Fellow, Terra Foundation for American Art, Doshisha University, Kyoto, JAPAN, 2021-2022. Recent publications: “The Panama Canal Zone as a Hybrid Landscape: A Case Study,” in Ecocriticism and the Anthropocene in Nineteenth-Century Art and Visual Culture (Routledge, 2020); The Great American Desert is No More,” in Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition of 1898-99 (University of Nebraska Press, 2017); ‘Mosquitoes, Malaria, and Cold Butter: Discourses of Health and Hygiene in the Panama Canal Zone, 1903-1915,” Panorama, (December 2017); and Empire on Display: San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2013). In-person participation.