Beautiful things happen in grassy places that are not the intention of an artist or designer. I mean, they just happen, and people do not recognize them for what they are at the time, but they are things of beauty. Accidental art has the virtue that it is utterly unaffected. No egos or divas are involved.
We’re just back from the high country grasslands of New Zealand, where we explored, among other things, the Northburn Tailings–by which I mean mine tailings, the leavings of gold mining, on Northburn Station, a sheep station now gone over to viticulture and agri-tourism. At this place, over a span of years in the late 19th century, alluvial gold miners organized themselves to divert a stream across intervening miles and use it to wash out gold on their grouped claims.
These are what are known as herringbone tailings, for the pattern left in the gulleys by the mining activity. The water was directed down a central sluice to which the miners carried the gold-bearing gravel. To get at the gravel, they had to shift the larger rocks aside, which were left in drifts stretching parallel with one another and at an angle from the central sluice–an orderly, and in retrospect beautiful, herringbone pattern. We usually think of mining as destructive of the environment. Here at Northburn we are confronted on the ground with the fact of creative destruction, something stirring and lovely wrought by accident.
It was fascinating to explore these works on the ground, and then when I got home, I looked them up in Google Earth. There I found that to the eye of God, these rough mine tailings appear as delicate fern leaves, clusters of them arranged in tawny fronds.
Living in the Red River Valley of North Dakota, I used to welcome August, not just because the mosquitoes usually subsided then, but more so because of the accidental beauty wrought by grain swathers. As farmers laid their grain into windrows to dry prior to combining, their fields assumed an elaborate geometry, like piped garments. Then, when the long light of the evening sun hit them, the shadows reached across the stubble to paint a dark stripe between the windrows, just as the gold gleam of dusk lit the tops of them. It was installation art on exhibit just for a week. All this corn now growing in the valley produces no such magic. Corn is just corn, and it doesn’t even smell good.
There are, too, everyday activities that effect spectacular displays across broad landscapes. In a few weeks pasture burning will commence in the Flint Hills of Kansas. Prescribed burning is good business and good conservation both, but the spectacle of flames night-dancing on the ridges is possibly the most gorgeous of all exhibitions generated by annual agricultural activity on the plains.
This is color in motion on a vast canvas, and maybe even performance art, because the practitioners of burning, no longer condemned by environmentalists for their pyrotechnics, are now free to admire, and enjoy the admiration of, their work. (Perhaps some of the unaffectedness has been lost from this pastoral art.)
I notice, for instance, that Josh Hoy of the Flying H Ranch is now advertising an April event called “Flames in the Flint Hills,” inviting grassland tourists to join in the fiery fun.
Another possibility is that we prairie people might look around us for the countless works of accidental art wrought by our neighbors, and point them out to others, and perhaps speak appreciatively to the people who make then in the course of their working lives.