Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail)[ * ]
Understanding Japanese Gardens and Earthworks on the Way to Understanding Nature Restoration

Thomas Heyd

To some people the expression "nature restoration" may seem to be an oxymoron. They may ask whether it makes any sense to suppose that human beings could restore that which is not human? Several writers recently have argued that this is nonsense and, furthermore, that the conceptual confusion involved may lead to ethically problematic consequences. In this essay I begin by discussing the problematic perceived in the notion of nature restoration. I proceed to consider Japanese gardens and earthworks, insofar as both types of art forms foreground the relationship of artefactuality to nature. I conclude that the counterintuitive way in which these arts engage us with nature may help us understand the manner in which, and the degree to which, nature restoration is plausible.


On the face of it, it would seem that nature restoration is a straightforward matter. Given the systematic incursion of human activites in nature, and given the ever increasing pace at which this incursion is happening, it would appear no more than common sense to return to a natural condition as much as possible of what we have appropriated [1] . This simply is a matter of restitution. It has been argued, however, that just as even a perfect reproduction of a Rembrandt painting is not, and should not be, valued in the same way as the original, even a perfect re-creation of a portion of nature is not comparable in value to the original that it is meant to replace. To pretend otherwise has been compared to (ethically problematic) fakery, forgeries and big lies [2] . The idea is that nature is thought of as a whole not authored by human beings. But, from this point of view all (human) attempts at nature restoration must fail since it would be an inherently contradictory affair. That is, it must be appear as conceptually confused and ethically suspect because later visitors to restored sites may feel defrauded if they come to a restored patch of land thinking that it came about without human intervention.

I believe that we can get out of this conundrum and gain a clearer view of the kind of interaction with nature that nature restoration is by considering two site-specific art forms, Japanese gardens and earthworks. Instead of drawing on paintings and sculptures, which usually are used to help clarify the conceptual status of nature restoration, Japanese gardens and earthworks are exemplary as works that directly seek to represent a distinct relationship of human beings to nature.


Jardin Kitanomaru, East Imperial

Japanese gardens and earthworks

Gardens constitute manipulations of nature par excellence. This is particularly obvious in European formal gardens. Those gardens freely make use of shrubs and flowering plants to exhibit patterns intended to represent various abstract ideas, such as order in the universe or the hegemonic power of a potentate. The situation is subtly different in the case of Japanese gardens [3] .

Certainly it is a mistake to suppose that all Japanese gardens are of one sort; quite to the contrary [4] . Without concerning ourselves here with fine distinctions it is notable, however, that, in contrast with formal European gardens, Japanese gardens generally aim to portray nature in its essential characteristics [5] . One commentator on Japanese gardens mentions the Japanese "appreciation for incompleteness" (encompassed in the terms shibui and shibusa) as one of the factors in Japanese gardens. The idea is that "nothing should be too perfect or it will fall short of reality and become artificial." [6] Another one notes that "absolute perfection ... would fail to embody beauty" since it is "through imperfection that perfection is recognised and beauty appreciated. A form that was perfect would be static and dead." [7] Consequently, symmetry, as is common in French formal gardens, typically is shunned." [8] Instead gardens are laid out in a manner that recalls natural areas, mimicking shore lines and mountainous areas. Preferably local plants are used, and often natural scenery lying outside the garden proper is incorporated in the garden by the deliberate creation of viewing points by means of openings between trees and shrubs. Stones, which constitute a fundamental part of Japanese gardens, are carefully selected for their weathering and are placed in such a way that they give viewers the sense that they 'naturally' belong where they are and in the combinations in which the viewers find them.


Jardin zen du temple Zuiho-in,
Daitoku-ji, Kyoto

In addition to these empirically relevant factors one may note that Japanese gardens ultimately hark back to Shinto traditions that claimed to perceive spiritual existences in prominent natural features, such as old trees, weathered stones or certain mountains. Later various further layers of nature-related significance were added throughout the course of Japanese history, culminating in the adoption of gardening by zen Buddhism as a way to illustrate the underlying unity of all things [9] . Finally, in the tea garden, the express intent is to induce reflection and thoughtfulness on the way to the tea house and its ceremony. All in all, these various strands of ideas behind the history of Japanese gardens crystallize in the notion that nature is not to be subordinated. Rather, it is supposed that, insofar as we are part of nature, or perhaps even 'identical' to it [10] , we can gain insight into our proper place by reflection on autonomous nature as presented in the garden [11] .


Jardin zen du temple Zuiho-in,
Daitoku-ji, Kyoto

Many who have visited Japanese gardens will agree that these gardens tend to be highly effective in inducing a high level of appreciation for nature as apparently displayed there. Allen Carlson goes so far as to argue that the aesthetic appreciation elicited by Japanese gardens is such that the sort of critical attitude that he deems appropriate for the appreciation of artworks is out of place there [12] . Rather, although qua gardens they are artefacts, he proposes that they are more fittingly appreciated as nature is. This sort of observation may lead one to conclude that Japanese gardens provide first rate models for nature restoration because, while artefactual, they make us feel that we are surrounded by nature. As we will see, however, this is a highly paradoxical judgement.

If Japanese gardens appear like examples of the closest that art may come to nature restoration, earthworks likely are considered the most removed from it. Earthworks are a kind of site-specific art that came into prominence in the late sixties and has more or less flourished since, but that, as various authors remind us, has existed ever since prehistoric times although it was not recognized as art for most of its time of existence [13] . The term 'earthwork' is not well defined and is often used interchangeably with 'land art' or 'earth art,' but I propose to focus here exclusively on those site-specific works that require a considerable amount of disturbance of earth and other natural materials, and that explicitly treat land, with its rock and dirt, as mere material.

Motivations for earth working varied, of course, but the underlying idea in the works created since the sixties seems to have been to make good use for art of spaces and earth as found in abundance in places such as deserts, mesas, and dry lakes. Michael Heizer's Double Negative (1969-70), for example, is located in a bend of Mormon Mesa at Virgin River, near Overton, Nevada. It consists of an incision into the edge of the mesa 30 feet wide, 42 feet deep and 100 feet long on one side of the mesa, continued across a wide gap on the other side of the mesa in an identical manner [14] . In the process, Heizer moved 240,000 tons of rhyolite and sandstone. He explained that he was interested in drawing attention to the 'negative space' encompassed in the total distance of 1500 feet; the piece, he claimed, is about absence [15] .

Notwithstanding the artistic merit of earthworks, they have been severely critiqued by environmental aestheticians and ethicists such as Carlson and Peter Humphrey. Carlson thinks that such works constitute an "aesthetic affront to nature" because, in the process of their creation, they neglect to respect the aesthetic value of preexisting nature [16] . Humphrey objects to such works because of their present and/or foreseeable negative ecological consequences [17] . It may be questioned, however, whether singling out earthworks in this manner is fully justified.

Certainly earthwork artists are not doing anything very different from what their non-artist contemporaries in industry are doing when mines are dug or urban developments and highways are blasted through hills and glades. In some cases these critical assessments may be symptoms of a Philistine preference for the merely utilitarian over the artistic, the reasoning being perhaps that we need those mines and roads and new suburbs but not these new kinds of artworks. Moreover, although making earthworks can cause a certain amount of disturbance in natural spaces, it remains unclear whether the painter with his oil paints and turpentine, or the photographer with her emulsions, are not doing more damage to the earth in the long run. (Earthworks are hard to make or to get funded, so very few are made by each artist.) Nonetheless, it seems quite clear that earthworks are, if anything, counterimages to what nature restoration may be, but perhaps this judgement is too precipitated.

Artifice and nature

As noted, Japanese gardens may seem veritable models for nature restoration, both in execution and underlying ideology, while earthworks may seem to represent the very opposite. Nonetheless, even if Japanese gardens may constitute highly engaging representations of the essence of nature, both their creation and their maintenance require thoroughgoing artifice. As in the 'Arcadian'-seeming, pastoral English gardens designed by Lancelot Brown'Capability'(1716-1783). Japanese gardening may require considerable earth moving, water basin creation, rock transport, planting, and consistent pruning. Japanese gardens may be as thoroughly artefactual as their various European counterparts.

Ironically, earthworks, which when first executed resemble lands that cry out for restoration, eventually tend to turn into the opposite. That is, in as much as earthworks when first executed may resemble industrial interventions in the land, after some time they are redeemed back by nature. This is the case with many of the early earthworks. I found this out through personal experience when I sought out Heizer's Double Negative in 1994. To my surprise the site had changed considerably from its appearance in the photographs in circulation, which date back to 1970 when the work was first made. Those photographs (which still are being reproduced in publications printed as late as 1995) show a neat cut in the rocky mesa intended to illustrate Heizer's desire for works that demonstrate "durability and precision" [18] . In 1994, though, I could see that on both parts of the piece the walls had begun to crumble, large rocks and mud washed out of the walls had accumulated in the supposedly empty spaces of each 'negative,' and various local plants had taken root here and there. These counterintuitive observations regarding Japanese gardens and earthworks lead me to a consideration of the bigger context in which our appreciation of these artworks figures.

My personal experience is that neither Japanese gardens nor earthworks make me feel uncomfortable, despite the evident display of human control issuing in their thoroughgoing artefactuality, while industrial and urbanisational development does, especially if located on crown or public lands (as much of the logging, ranching and ski development is in Canada). I am curious about what makes for the difference between them. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that, qua artworks, Japanese gardens and earthworks invite us to look beyond their immediate impact on human interests. In fact, both Japanese gardens and earthworks enunciate very particular sorts of human-nature relationships.

So, what can we learn from these contrasting sorts of interventions in nature? Japanese gardens are like fingers pointing to what nature has to offer to us. By making, for example, a space for asymmetries and what seem to be imperfections they also put human lives into the context of nature by suggesting ways in which the skewedness and imperfections in our lives may be acceptable. These gardens promote what the ancient European schools of philosophy called 'the look from above': even if from close-up our lives often seem miserable, they may make some sense when seen in relation to nature. Moreover, by making us feel comfortable in what seem to be natural spaces, Japanese gardens help to make alien nature somewhat less alien, without failing to point out with their unexpected turns and vistas that nature will be surprising at times. Furthermore, by creating the illusion in the visitors of being in natural spaces, while simultaneously displaying the illusory character of those spaces, they bridge the gap between the artefactual and nature without denying it.

Earthworks, in contrast, are like fingers pointing to what little we offer in exchange for nature. They show this by mimicking the rough handling of wild, natural spaces carried out by our industries, and whitewashed by our policy makers, on a daily basis. But, at least in many cases, to look at earthworks is also to look at the wilderness that surrounds it. From Double Negative's cut into the subsurface of the land, for example, we come to the presence of the workings of the earth from a long time back, the distant mountain ranges with their impregnable walls, and the daunting desert floor that calls on the eye to travel to a far horizon; together all these facets of the land highlighted by the sitedness of the artwork function as reminders of the otherness of nature, of its alien character. They also are warnings about the blindness that results from coming too close to nature in the process of treating it as mere material for our passing consumptive urges: if all we see is a future mine or road or housing development we may fail to see all those other faces that nature freely offers.

While earthworks are artefacts without any pretense of representing nature, they, like Japanese gardens, may also provide us with something like a bridge between the artefactual and the natural. Even if these works represent assaults on nature, calculated aesthetic affronts if you will, they are also essentially human gestures in nature. Despite our distaste for the sort of gesture they are we may recognize ourselves in them just as we may recognize ourselves in the tragic heroes Oedipus or Medea of ancient Greek tragedy. We may not feel inclined to identify with the sort of gesture earthworks represent, but, by taking ownership of those gestures, we are more fully enabled to think about what sorts of gestures are possible for us in nature.

Moreover, while in the case of Japanese gardens we can only fight their illusory powers by noting the markers of their utter artifice, in the case of earthworks we have the opposite task. We can only grasp that they have a relevance that goes beyond their nature-assaulting artefactuality by noting how they expose us to nature in the raw. These two sorts of art make both epistemological and moral points. They present alternative ways of cognising nature and our relationships with it, and, consequently, raise the issue of how we may act with respect to that nature.


Jardin Kitanomaru, East Imperial

Nature restoration without dissimulation

Japanese gardens and earthworks can bring us closer to nature by pointedly different strategies. Both types of art, though, seem to forcefully argue against dissimulation because of our actions. Dissimulation, as Jean Baudrillard has reminded us, is to feing not to have what one does, while simulation is to feign to have what one does not. The accusation of forgery and fakery with regard to nature restoration arises because of the fear that the restorers hide their human interventions in nature. Japanese gardens and earthworks seem to show that even very considerable interventions in nature can aid rather than hinder our appreciation of nature - if the interventions are distinguishable from nature's doing. So, does nature restoration make sense? Nature restoration is not the act of nature. Consequently, human agency should be acknowledged and shown in the restoration work if it is to avoid the charge of fakery, forgery or big lies. Furthermore, human agency in nature restoration needs to be evident so that we may remember to grieve for what nature is already lost, and be incited to look beyond to the ever-shrinking parcels of our world that remain non-artefactualized. And human agency in restored areas should be openly displayed so that human visitors may benefit from the fact that restoration is a way of relating the artefactual and the natural. That is, nature restoration may bring about a bridge to non-human nature, even in its most alien manifestations.

Practically, what does this mean? It suggests at least a judicious combination of a policy of letting be, insofar as natural processes can be allowed to come into their own again through it, and a policy of intervention, to remove human-created obstacles to those natural processes [19] , all the while leaving clear sign of what the human, artefactual contribution is. So, this might mean to regrade old roads in such a way as to make their renewed use unlikely, but not in such a way that all trace of human intervention is hidden. And it might mean to take logging and roadbuilding debris out of creeks to enable local fish species to reclaim them, but probably not to restock them, and certainly not on a regular basis or with 'improved' species.

Naturalness seems to come in degrees once artefactuality has been introduced. Certainly our limited ability to make peace with the land through restorative work can in no way justify further incursions into what little wild nature is left [20] . But, where the damage has already been done, it would seem justifaible. In those cases it is relevant that the less intervention, and the less dissimulated it is, the more plausible nature restoration will be.

[1] Gunn, A.S. 1991. “The Restoration of Species and Natural Environments”. Environmental Ethics 13:291-310.

[2] See Elliott, 1982 Katz, E. 1992. The Big Lie: Human Restoration of Nature. Research in Philosophy and Technology 12:231-41.

[3] Purkayastha, B. 1993. "Italian Renaissance and Japanese Zen Gardens: An Approach for Introducing Cultural Landscapes". Journal of Geography 420-26.

[4] Eliovson, S. 1971. Gardening the Japanese Way. London: George Harrap.

[5] Carlson, A. 1997. "On the Aesthetic Appreciation of Japanese Gardens." British Journal of Aesthetics 37:47-56.

[6] Eliovson, 1971, p. 28.

[7] Holborn, M. 1978. The Ocean in the Sand, Japan: From Landscape to Garden. Boulder: Shambhala.

[8] Keene, D. 1969. Japanese Aesthetics. Philosophy East and West 19:293-326.

[9] Davidson, A.K. 1982. Zen Gardening. London: Rider.

[10] Saito, Y. 1985. "The Japanese Appreciation of Nature". British Journal of Aesthetics 25(3):239-51 and Holborn, 1978, pp. 57-58.

[11] Purkayastha, 1993, p. 421.

[12] Carlson, 1997.

[13] Bourdon, D. 1995. Designing the Earth: The Human Impulse to Shape Nature. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

[14] Gruen, J. 1977. Michael Heizer: "You Might Say I'm in the Construction Business."Artnews 97-99.

[15] Bourdon, 1995, p. 218.

[16] Carlson, A. 1986. "Is Environmental Art an Aesthetic Affront to Nature?" Canadian Journal of Philosophy 16(4):635-650.

[17] Humphrey, P. 1985. "The Ethics of Earthworks." Environmental Ethics 7:22-30.

[18] Bourdon, 195.

[19] Attfield, R. 1994. Rehabilitating Nature and Making Nature Habitable in: R. Attfield and Andrew Belsey (eds.) Philosophy and the Natural Environment (Cambridge University Press) 1994, 45-58, especially, pp.48-49.

[20] Light A. and Higgs E.S. 1996. The Politics of Restoration. Environmental Ethics 18(3):227-47.


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