of their performance, and also to trespass. In the parking lot,
Jennifer introduces me to the three dancers and the performance’s sound designer, and I follow them up the stairs to the
reservoir path. We walk around the fence to a gap on its far side,
where we slip through and scramble down the sloped rock wall.
The dancers do this with the agility you would expect of dancers.
I try to appear equally agile, but eventually, clutching slim tree
trunks and sliding down gravelly bits, settle for not killing myself.
At the bottom, the ?oor of the reservoir is dirt. Stands of
skinny birches and aspens intermingle with carpets of moss
and thickets of pokeweed and Japanese knotweed. Small maples
are dotted about. Much of what grows here is what you would
expect to >nd in the now-vanished Long Island swamp forest
that provided the reservoir’s original water: it’s an ecosystem
transplanted by infrastructure. There are signs of other trespassers
too: broken glass, discarded cans, forts, and paint globs attest
to the basin’s attraction for paintball fans. Homeless people
sometimes camp out in the reservoir, Jennifer tells me, but they
favor a di=erent basin.
The little group knows exactly where it is going. They always
use the same spot, to minimize their impact on the landscape.
They weave their way in and out through the trees and brush
to a small clearing. Backpacks are dropped, sweatshirts pulled
o=, and everyone stands in a circle, chatting quietly, a moment
that organically grows into the warm-up exercise. Like the birders, the dancers close their eyes, locating themselves in space.
I sink down onto the dry ground under a birch. The leafy,
twiggy detritus has a slightly sweet smell. The wind comes up
and the skinny birches sway in turn like sports fans doing the
wave. A catbird meows. Then a long, high whistle passes by to
the north: an Amtrak train gliding through Queens. The
dancers move ?uidly to their starting spots and begin a slow
series of movements, long and dragged out, like changes in
THERE IS SOME PRECEDENT for letting old industrial
sites or infrastructure return to a wild state. The famous Ruhr
district—once the center of German coal and steel production—
is now one of the world’s largest postindustrial landscapes. Many
of the region’s mines and factories were dismantled by the Allies
after World War II; others were demolished in the wake of globalization and the decline of traditional manufacturing in Europe.
But in 1996, the Projekt Industriewald Ruhrgebiet (Industrial
Forest Project of the Ruhr) began converting some sites into
parklands and nature preserves, with natural succession woodlands allowed to slowly disassemble the built environment.
These rewilded woodlands are a new kind of landscape, with
new meanings. They suggest to the visitor not an untouched,
prehuman world, but a reverted, posthuman one. That creates
an interesting tension. Critics point out that there can be a
“stigma” attached to such places: they symbolize economic
decline as well as natural resilience. These landscapes also
counter the ideal of historic preservation, which uses restoration to freeze time. Instead, they yield to decay, drawing the
viewer’s attention to time’s relentless arrow.
Critics of the Ruhr project worried that visitors would >nd
the new parks depressing. They haven’t. In fact, visitors seem
to take special pleasure in the contrast between the crumbling
built world and the vibrant, new natural one. And it isn’t in
spite of the landscape’s implications, but because of them.
Visitors enjoying nature’s unmaking of human places are following in the footsteps of the Romantics, who swarmed over
ancient ruins and gazed up at the Alps, seeking symbols of
human frailty and God’s grandeur. It’s a new take on an old
idea: the post-technological sublime.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the famous
“Grand Tour” of Europe centered on sublime sights, places
that combined beauty and terror to inspire awe for something
bigger than man. But once humans had mastered the landscape—
waterfalls and rivers harnessed for power, distances conquered
by the combustion engine, Earth’s very mysteries unraveled
down to the genome—we turned to our own achievements in
our quest to feel awe. Sublimity was found in the electrical
turbine, the jet engine, the slow-motion explosion of a rocket
As our eyes have adjusted to the brightness of our triumph,
we have also discerned its dark underside. Our drive to control
and master the environment has begun to frighten us with
its success. Today—witness the paintings of Alexis Rockman
or writer Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us—we >nd
an odd comfort in the idea of our ultimate failure. All this is not
irreversible, says the post-technological sublime. What we have
done can be undone.
“I’M ON A MISSION to re-engage people with their environments,” Monson tells me. In 2004, she created a nonpro>t
corporation called iLand—Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Art,
Nature and Dance—with this purpose. In addition to collaborating with educators, >eld researchers, and architects on place-based projects, iLand worked with the Parks Department to
coordinate a full day of events on the path around Ridgewood
Reservoir’s rim in June 2007. Six performers danced from
dawn until dusk, park rangers provided information about the
unique reservoir ecology, displays reported on a local bird
census and vegetation survey, and kids from a local school
performed a dance choreographed by Jennifer. Like her current