Rivers and Tides and Words

"Fall Leaves" by Andy Goldsworthy

“Fall Leaves” by Andy Goldsworthy

Years ago I saw a documentary about a landscape artist named Andy Goldsworthy called Rivers and Tides. His art is breathtaking: by using materials from the environment in which he works—sticks, stones, leaves, icicles, flower petals—he doesn’t just represent the natural world, he collaborates with it and in so doing, demonstrates its ephemerality.

With Zen-like patience, Goldsworthy uses tension and balance to sculpt things like ice spires and slate domes and twig nests. But what makes his work so remarkable to me is that it’s never intended to be permanent.

His desire is to understand the world by temporarily interrupting it—the flow of water, the arrangements of icicles—with the understanding, the anticipation, that his sculptures will return to their natural state.

“When I make a work, I often take it to the very edge of its collapse. And that’s a beautiful balance.” ~Andy Goldsworthy

It makes me think too of the artist Simon Beck, who spends days walking on fresh snow to create spectacular designs, and the hoaxers Doug Bower and Dave Chorley who made hundreds of crop circles using a rope-and-plank contraption. Then the snow falls, the wheat grows again. There’s nothing left of the art or the time spent making it. Nothing left that says of the artist, I was here.

It seems so beautiful and enlightened not to need to say that. To be able to create something for the sake of it, and then to feel no angst when it’s gone, the way musical notes vanish after they’ve been played, or a dance or a song or a sculpture made of ice.

I have a friend who wrote a gorgeous short story and posted it on his blog for about two hours before he became self-conscious about it and deleted it. “But you still have it,” I said. No, he told me. He really deleted it. “But why?” I asked. “Why wouldn’t you at least keep it for posterity?” Because he didn’t need to, because there were more where it came from.

I’m not yet that evolved. I spend hours and days and years assembling words that become stories, screenplays, novels. And I want them to stay assembled the way some people pour lacquer over completed puzzles and hang them on the wall. But after spending the last week editing a book, I’m learning to let them go. There are passages and scenes that felt so important when I wrote them, but later didn’t serve the story, and so I’m forced to let them disassemble back into the alphabet soup whence they came. But it’s not without a little regret.

Then I think of Andy Goldsworthy, and the joyful way he watches his creations get absorbed back into the landscape. I think of my friend, who doesn’t need to hang onto old stories, because he knows there will be new ones. And I think of how things don’t have to be permanent to be meaningful, and that sometimes there may be even more beauty in letting them go.