Jack Loeffler

 

Imagine that you are aloft, gently drifting in an early autumnal breeze a half mile above the Earth, the jagged scarp of the watermelon mountain to the east, the dark finger of the Southern Rockies pointing from the north, the great super volcano of the Valles Caldera profiled to the northwest, another volcano known to the Navajo as Tsoodzil rising from the west, the broad stretches of high-desert flatland that cradle these ranges extending endlessly to the south, this flatland bisected by a long ribbon of riparian lushness nurtured by the muddy waters of the Río Grande. You stand in a basket suspended from a hot air balloon.

 

What is that below, that patch of color flashing from the barren wasteland of what was once a golf course, now an enormous sand trap?

 

Slowly you descend to get a better look. Gradually, you perceive an irregularly shaped multi-hued patchwork that seems to have sprouted from the land like a giant flower to which you are attracted as if you were a great bumblebee. You continue to descend until you actually land near this strange quilt. Standing a few yards away from this patchwork are a man and a woman garbed in work clothes who obviously tend this garden of color. They are Tony Anella and Cara McCulloch, two architects who are devoted to homeland and celebrate their devotion in many ways, including the creation of this beautiful rendering of art that they call the Land Quilt. However, this is more than art. It is creative expression of restoration ecology.

 

On closer examination, each of the 50 patches is lashed to a metal framework, and each patch is a funnel that opens over a square foot of Earth. Cara and Tony have taken a major cue from Aldo Leopold, the great 20th-century ecologist who initiated the practice of restoration ecology on the depleted 80-acre Leopold family farm in Sand County, Wisconsin.

 

Tony tells us about the Land Quilt: “The idea of a quilt as something of a nurturing relationship with whatever it covers, and the idea of a quilting bee, something that involves community spirit, community engagement, is the inspiration behind the Land Quilt, that and the inspiration of the Leopold family restoring an abused farm in Wisconsin. We considered how to make that into an art form and how to engage other people in doing the same thing in face of all the discouraging news and evidence about climate change. One understandable response would be to throw your hands up in the air and say, ‘I can’t do anything about it.’ Another less reasonable one is to stick your head in the sand and pretend that it doesn’t exist. But what we tried to do with the Land Quilt is to inspire hopeful engagement in doing our small part in taking care of our planet.

 

“Just the idea of the Leopold family coming together, making their shack into a weekend retreat, and making their project into restoring what had been an abused piece of land is a total inspiration to me. Just Cara and me walking around this golf course, this abandoned UNM golf course where they’d stopped irrigating after they had scraped the land, these were barren fairways. This place is special for Albuquerque. Twenty years ago they built berms that created water-catchment basins where plants had colonized. Cara and I thought if we could maybe concentrate with these fabric funnels that make up the individual patches of the Land Quilt—if we could concentrate eight square feet of water on one square foot of land, that maybe that would give these native seeds that we planted a toehold. It remains to be seen if this is going to work. This has been an extremely low-monsoon season.”

 

Tony and Cara started this project in the spring of 2011. They met with and convinced University of New Mexico administrators that this formerly irrigated, now abandoned golf course was the perfect site for an artful expression of restoration ecology. Tony Anella and Cara McCulloch, daughter of Patsy and Frank McCulloch, himself a well-known artist and folk musician, designed the Land Quilt. Cara designed the pattern of colors.

 

“We responded to the temporary public Art Program sponsored by Albuquerque,” said Cara. “[The Land Quilt is comprised of 50] four-sided 3’ by 3’ steel wire frames that have stakes that go into the ground with additional re-enforcing rebar to keep them firm during winds. Then onto that frame is lashed a fabric funnel that funnels down to a 12” square opening just above the ground. On the ground we’ve placed a seed ball made of native seeds, clay and compost. Two days after installation we had a nice rain and those seed balls started to decompose.

 

“It’s worked in one sense in that of the native seeds that we planted in seed balls, four or five different plant types have taken hold. But the stress of so little water for such a long time is showing.”

 

The Land Quilt is not a permanent piece of art. It is to be disassembled at the end of each growing season and re-installed elsewhere the following year. What is intended to be permanent is the patch of native vegetation that is nurtured into existence when the seeds in the seed balls sprout, and the seasonal rains pass through the funnel catchments and drain onto the seed balls—a jump-start to re-invigorate native plants in their proper habitat. In a word, the Land Quilt is a temporary work of art intended to result in permanent restoration ecology, a work of art that can be re-cycled time and again involving a growing level of community involvement and recognition that as the keystone species, we have a responsibility to our homeland.

 

Cara and Tony selected colors that complement the landscape, complement the existing vegetation, complement the Spirit of Place. In its first iteration on the abandoned UNM golf course, the positioning of the Quilt made “reference to the cardinal directions, the hotter colors tending toward the south and west, and colors reflecting the mountains situated on the north and east sides as they were placed in the context of the site.”

 

Tony Anella goes on to say: “It’s 450 square feet, and our hope is that this installation will be the first of many. School groups or neighborhood organizations might adopt this for local projects. It’s a good way to get school-kids and neighbors involved. In this case, we met with the UNM landscape architect and the people at Native Plants of the Southwest, who advised us which seeds would have the greatest chance of succeeding. Then pick a piece of land, pick the seeds that would work on that piece of land, make the seedballs, plant them, monitor how much rainfall you get, what the temperatures are, the germination rate. It could become a science project that re-connects those kids to the land. It could work for neighborhood associations. The fundamental idea of this is that when you take care of a piece of land, your relationship to that land changes.”

 

Tony and Cara hope that the Land Quilt can be rented and thus installed on patches of barren but beloved land throughout Albuquerque.

 

The overall cost of the Land Quilt was $12,377.50 and included the costs of the metal frame, fabric funnels, rope for lashing, structural engineering, website design, aerial photography, postcards and incidentals. Cara and Tony received no fiscal recompense for their many hours of labor. Rader Awning in Albuquerque produced the fabric funnels, and Joe Doyle of Iron and Stone down in the South Valley constructed the metal jigs for the wire frames. Funding was provided by the McCune Charitable Trust, and the FUNd from the Albuquerque Community Foundation. Audubon New Mexico served as their fiscal agent.

 

The Land Quilt was first put in place in July 2012 and was disassembled in late October—a time period that spans the traditional monsoon season. Where before was barren land, there are now clusters of plants, a quilt of vegetation.

 

“Cara and I, as a matter of principle have not supplemented the water. We’ve seen these plants distressed, and we keep looking up at the sky hoping that we’ll get some rain. But just the experience of doing this Land Quilt, two urban dwellers, has put us in a different relationship with the vagaries of weather and the mercy of climate change.”

 

Art is frequently intended to inspire fellow humans but rarely used as a temporary means to nurture vegetation to burst into life. To me, the Land Quilt, a creation of the minds of Tony Anella and Cara McCulloch, is a call to everyone to respond to the flow of Nature in this time of bio-jeopardy—the grim by-product of our species’ incessant demand on our planetary homeland.

 

Restoration ecology is itself an artform where the artist dives, jumps or slithers into the flow of Nature with every sense and intuition attuned to the needs of homeland, and then responds in creative fashion, whether by replanting native seeds, restoring endangered species to habitat, writing poetry, conversing with ravens, listening to the dawn chorus of birds, inhaling the wind, learning the bio-geographical characteristics of homeland, turning children loose out-of-doors, absorbing the Spirit of Place, opening one’s mind to the night sky—re-sacralyzing the landscape, understanding one’s true place therein, and acting accordingly with humility and gratitude for one’s life and consciousness, the greatest gifts Nature can bestow. That is true restoration ecology. There is no higher calling.

 

 

Jack Loeffler is the author of numerous books, including Healing the West: Voices of Culture and Habitat. Jack Loeffler and Celestia Loeffler are contributors and co-editors of Thinking Like a Watershed, an anthology of essays published by the University of New Mexico Press. For more info, visit www.loreoftheland.org