Primeval garden takes hold near Philadelphia Artist brings nature to an urban corner of Pennsylvania


ABINGDON, Pa. - An installation called "A Reclamation Garden" at the Abingdon Art Center stands at the corner where art and nature meet, but also at the haunting, paradoxical intersection where wanting-to-let-it-disappear and wanting-it-to-live-forever run into each other. As such, it is a great place for gardeners to visit.

Vines thick as pythons leap through the air, gripping 80-foot trees. Leaf dust puffs up in the autumn sunlight. Dark rugs of naturalized myrtle, planted as mere clumps 60 years ago, unroll underfoot. Toppled trunks of 200-year-old trees lie beached on the forest floor.

Deadfall branches and detached limbs hang from the crotches of other trees, arching over deer trails.

Work started in 1992

But this is not a mythic American wilderness, 45 minutes from downtown Philadelphia. Many of the natural features have been recognized, reshaped, framed and commented on by the artist Winifred Lutz, who made a name for herself 20 years ago as a sculptor working in wood and paper.

This outdoor installation, begun in 1992, is the largest work in the contemporary sculpture collection at the art center, which also displays site-specific pieces by other land artists like Ursula von Rydingsvard and Susan Crowder.

Alverthorpe Manor, a portly neo-Georgian house on 34 acres, was donated as a cultural center to Abingdon township in 1969 by Lessing Rosenwald, the renowned bibliophile and Sears, Roebuck heir. It sits in a peaceful suburb where time seems to stand still.

Art, too, usually seems to stand still, to seek immortality, but gardens are metaphors for passing time. Though "A Reclamation Garden" is a permanent installation, nothing in it is designed to be - or can be - permanent.

The land the garden occupies has been used, since the 16th century, as a hunting ground, a farm field and a private arboretum. In the 1930s, it was redesigned for the Rosenwalds as a romantic woodland walk complete with a rusticated stone archway. The site was then left untouched until the art center commissioned Lutz's work.

A model from Paris

"A Reclamation Garden" is America's Desert de Retz, a forested playground of the imagination. The Desert, a restored 18th-century landscape garden outside Paris, offers up follies like a house built in the form of a broken classical column, an Egyptian pyramid ice house and a temple of Pan. But here in Abingdon, the follies have names that refer to nature, not culture: "The Deadfall Dome," "The Red Oak Portal," "The Impact Zone." They are what Lutz calls registers, marking the work of gravity, time and weather. Only Lutz's 15-foot-tall stone tower is recognizable at a distance as man-made.

Otherwise, Lutz's work reveals itself slowly. Making a visitor think about what is hers and what is nature's is part of the art. Those round piles of twigs, low stacks of branches all the same size, a smooth stone laid flush with the ground and sandblasted with an inscription are clearly hers. But it turns out, so is a sandy channel that carries drainpipe runoff from a parking lot. She spent a year studying existing silting patterns and worked accordingly. "The growth patterns I follow are the patterns of nature," she said. "I don't want my work to look like something; I want it to act like it," she said.

One of the first features she completed involved a 45-foot fallen black walnut trunk. Its open jaws display teeth of ash, oak and other deadfall logs. As the teeth shrink away from the top jaw, Lutz fills the increasing gaps with glittering mica shards. They mark the difference in rates of decay between various kinds of wood. "Black walnut decays more slowly because it is full of toxins," she said.

Under an ancient yellowwood tree near the garden's entrance is a wooden prop, a support for an ungainly branch.

During the growing season, the burden of leaves and sap in the huge branch eases it down onto its crutch. In winter, an inch-wide gap between branch and prop appears - a tiny measure of the previous summer's weight of life.

Besides the stone tower and gateway, the parts of Lutz's work that will mean the most to a casual visitor are the monumental "portals" made of broken and fallen trunks and branches. They frame the views from the path that makes a circuit through this garden.

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