Snowshoeing with Robert Morris

On the north side of the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, there is a large-scale earthwork sculpture, “Project X.” Robert Morris made it in 1974 as part of a city-wide sculpture exhibiton called “Art Off the Pedestal.”

Its design is simple: a pair of crossed, straight, asphalt-paved walkways running diagonally across the north face of a hill such that, viewed from a distance, they appear in the shape of the letter X.

At the northeast end, at the bottom of the hill, one of the X’s diagonals meets up with a city sidewalk, a sidewalk that runs past a factory building, past some trees and some houses.

At the southwest end, at the top of the hill, there is a park with impressive views of the Grand River and the city’s west side.

The other diagonal connects the park, at the top of the hill, with a baseball diamond’s outfield at the bottom.

The effect this X has is to encourage a linear experience of the landscape. Morris’s paths compel people to walk in certain ways, to take in certain views of the city. From time to time, the piece must cause people to meet in the middle of the X.

This afternoon I made my own X on a landscape – a wide-open, snowy field – rendering straight lines where previously none existed.

The place I chose was the stamp sand peninsula on the east side of Lake Linden, which the old Calumet & Hecla mills deposited and which has been covered over by a six-inch layer of sand and clay. The stamp sand peninsula shares with Project X this characteristic of being a reclaimed landscape.

In the winter time, the place has an austere beauty about it.

The stamp sand peninsula was covered with a foot or so of snow. I tracked an X across it with snowshoes. The X had surprisingly true angles.

Lacking a surveyor’s transit or a compass, I relied on man-made reference points jutting above the horizon line to guide my movement. I was surprised how easy it was to find such features.

My starting point was a yellow-painted post at the gate to the sewage treatment lagoon that occupies part of the southern half of the peninsula. From there, it was easy to maintain a straight path to the northeast by sighting a cellular phone tower located off Bootjack road, with its bright white light flashing obnoxiously against the clouded sky. The walk along the other diagonal, going from southeast to northwest, was accomplished using one of St. Joseph church’s silver-topped steeples.

Wind whipped the snow around. The white landscape was broken up at irregular intervals by dried stalks of last summer’s spotted knapweed sticking out of the snow. Austere beauty and not a lot of topography.

The snowshoe along the east edge of the field, from the ending point of first diagonal to the starting point of the second, was the most visually dynamic part of the outing. I followed close along a row of tag alders growing on the edge of the water.

Along this stretch, nature seemed intent to present me with forms subverting linearity: the trunks of the tag alders, the irregular shoreline. Most compelling of all, and most subversive, was a very large wasp nest built right at eye level in the branches of one of the tag alders.

The nest had a vague symmetry. But in the layers of its ash-gray exterior, there was no straight line to be seen.