Artists-turned-activists typically use their work to amplify awareness about an issue. Increased publicity, the thinking goes, inspires action in the field.
But poet Amelia Williams has found a way to leverage art as a direct blocking and delay tactic in the fight against fracked gas pipelines and compressor stations.
“In 2014, when we learned about the prospect of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline coming through Nelson County and other counties and wild areas in Virginia, I wanted to do something,” Williams says.
The poet and eco-artist, who has a Ph.D. in English from UVA, lives on Shannon Farm Community, an intentional community in Nelson County with 500 acres owned in common by the people who live there. “This big property has beautiful wetland areas and open meadows and communal organic gardens, and they would have been plowed through by the pipelines,” she says, referring to one of Dominion Resources’ proposed routes for its planned 550-mile natural gas pipeline from West Virginia to North Carolina.
“I chose a lifestyle that isn’t about money and things,” says Williams. “It’s about being here, on this land, living with other people together. Something that’s hard to touch on with numbers and dollars is what happens to your heart when your place is ripped away from you. There are birds that are dependent on deep woods environment. What happens to the wood thrush, the whippoorwill, the barn owl, when these trees are gone? What happens to me? What kind of spiritual desolation do I experience?”
She says that many members of Shannon Farm are working against Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline, not just because it threatens to “carve an enormous swath” through their backyard but because pipelines are a regional and statewide issue.
“Natural gas pipelines, in general, are a very bad idea,” she says. “How they leak methane, how environmental protections are often ignored by state-based departments, how rivers and streams and well water is polluted. We also learned about how energy companies can earn money from a pipeline even when the ‘need’ for it is not really substantiated.”
So Williams’ interest piqued when she read about Canadian artist Peter von Tiesenhausen, who waylaid a mining company when he registered his 800 acres as intellectual property in the form of land art.
According to an article in the Cantech Letter, von Tiesenhausen explained that any disturbance to the top six inches of his property would constitute a copyright violation—and, ideally, a prohibitively expensive legal battle that dissuades installation of a pipeline.
“I’m not a legal scholar, and I didn’t know if there was any precedent for doing this kind of thing in the U.S., but I thought I would imitate it here,” Williams says.
The lifelong poet reviewed her work and found a large number of poems with roots in Nelson County. Next, she set about creating sculptural containers and assemblages that would integrate her writing with the landscape.
“I wanted to make land art like the projects of Andrew Goldsworthy, whose works are intended to fade back into the landscape because they are created out of natural elements like twigs and leaves,” she says.
Ultimately, Williams made 16 different containers out of local biodegradable materials, including clay bowls, cedar boxes, felted bags and fire-hardened bamboo. Community members donated many of these materials, all of which hold up well in rain, snow and the humidity of Virginia summers.
She sealed the cases with local beeswax and placed each piece in the location referred to in its poem. “This included hauling two of the pieces up to the trees in an area we call the Beech Grove, which is on a ridgeline, because those trees would have been taken down by the pipeline,” she says.
As soon as the project was installed in the field, she had a documentary photographer take pictures of each piece, which she submitted as a collective eco-art trail for copyright registration with the U.S. Copyright Office.
“As a maker you own the copyright as soon as you make it, but you register that copyright if you anticipate some kind of legal issue,” she says, which is an important distinction for artists-turned-activists.
Because land art derives its meaning from its precise location, an eminent domain lawyer would likely recognize that you can’t just put it somewhere else and maintain its value.
So does the theory work in practice?
Hard to say, because no precedent exists and Williams’ work hasn’t been put to the test. Though she’s collecting examples of successful art-as-environmental-protest tactics, she points to the fact that most battles are won by fights on multiple fronts.
“When we learned that the preferred route [of the pipeline] was now not going to run across this land, I felt it essential to keep up the fight to help other landowners and other people,” she says. “I also don’t trust Dominion; that they won’t move it back.”
Williams wants to inspire others to consider land-art protests of their own. “The best-case scenario is that the energy companies wake up and realize the future lies in renewables, and if they want to do their shareholders a favor, they will move in that direction with all of their money and their R&D and their publicity,” she says.
All proceeds from Walking Wildwood Trail: Poems and Photographs, a book of poetry and photography documenting her project, benefit Friends of Nelson and Wild Virginia. The significance, she hopes, reaches everyone.
“The words of poets speak to people’s hearts, she says. “It allows them to figure forth their own attachments to the trees and the water and the land.”
May 24, 2016: A win for Nelson pipeline opponents