The Kansas City Artist’s “Redwood Preserve” Project Seeks to Restore the Ancient California Redwood Forest
Late last year, Kansas City artist Jarrett Mellenbruch was selected to receive a prestigious 2020 Creative Capital Award for “Redwood Preserve,” “a proposed land art and social enterprise project to restore the ancient California redwood forest obliterated by logging in the 19th and 20th centuries.”
To date, Mellenbruch, who teaches in the sculpture department at the Kansas City Art Institute, is best known for his HAVEN project, a nationwide network of beehive sculptures designed to combat colony collapse.
“Redwood Preserve” has an even more ambitious goal: “to revive biodiversity through the re-creation of a massive wildland sanctuary and combat climate change by establishing a giant terrestrial carbon sink.”
“Redwood Preserve” is one of 35 projects by 41 U.S. artists chosen from more than 4,000 applications by a nine-member panel. Creative Capital seeks “bold, groundbreaking projects” that explore a range of subjects drawn from different realms of contemporary life. Each award includes $100,000, split evenly between direct project funding and career development services.
The seed for “Redwood Preserve” was planted when Mellenbruch was in high school and took a trip with his family to the redwood forest in California. He was interested in photography and took many shots of the trees, inspired by their massive scale, which he remembers as seeming mythical. This first encounter left an indelible impression.
Years after that initial trip, Mellenbruch was inspired by the cross section of a giant redwood log he saw at the Museum of Natural History when he was living in New York. Points of history are marked on the tree’s rings, from the first printing press in China in the year 600, through the height of the Aztec Empire in Mexico in 1300, to 1891, when the tree was cut down. The tree’s existence across this time span resonated with him.
“The rings on the tree are akin to ideas of scale: size, time and scale of destruction,” Mellenbruch said in a recent interview. “I had the passing thought: Can we somehow undo what we have done? Put it all back?”
Coastal Redwoods and Giant Sequoia, grouped by the common name redwood, can live 2,000 to 3,000 years. Their ancestry is traced back 240 million years.
“The redwoods I saw as a teenager represented only about 5 percent of trees present before logging. Two million acres existed, but logging destroyed them within a period of 150 years.”
The swift destruction of 95 percent of the ancient California redwood forests exemplifies the scale and speed with which human activity has altered and radically compromised Earth’s ecology and environment.
Mellenbruch explains the project as a way to implement imperative environmental restoration while reconnecting with a deeper time-scale relationship with the planet. “The Redwood Preserve is a call to fundamentally realign ourselves not only with nature, but with time.”
Kansas City got an early look at Mellenbruch’s winning project in 2018, when he presented his Redwood Preserve White Paper as part of the 2018 Charlotte Street Foundation Visual Artist Awards exhibition at the Art Institute’s H&R Block Artspace.
The 16-page proposal lays out the project in detail, including the artist’s sources of inspiration. They include “naturalist and environmental philosopher John Muir and his triumphant efforts to preserve the Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Park, the social sculpture 7000 Oaks by German artist Joseph Beuys, artist Robert Hammonds’s High Line park in New York City and American land art including Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson and Roden Crater by James Turrell.”
The White Paper also sets out strategies for achieving restoration of the full two million acres of forest. Mellenbruch explains, “The Redwood Preserve would begin purchasing land and conservation easements for the remaining 1.2 million acres of unprotected redwood forest with a mandate to restore it to its pre-Gold Rush condition.”
An integral component is funding, and Mellenbruch envisions innovative crowdfunding opportunities via Blockchain transactions with “utility tokens” that could track and trade carbon. This would provide opportunities for companies, organizations, institutions and individuals — a “critical mass of humanity” — to be stakeholders.
The Creative Capital award supports the intensive research Mellenbruch still needs to conduct in California, including getting to know landowners and expanding a network of potential funders, partners, collaborators and institutions that will get behind the Redwood Preserve and propel the activism and collective will needed to implement it.
Central to Mellenbruch’s proposal is the critical need to sequester carbon and strategically manage land.
Forest restoration and planting efforts can play a huge role in combating climate change. Redwoods are able to absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than any other tree and continue that process as they grow. They can sequester the carbon in their wood for thousands of years.
“Redwood Preserve” aligns with an urgent and growing global rallying cry to address the climate crisis. Many are heeding the call, including high school students, inspired by Greta Thunberg, who are organizing “school strikes for climate” locally and globally.
Mellenbruch sees the Redwood Preserve as a prototype action plan. “Redwood Preserve can be a catalyst — one initiative among many that can provide an impetus on a global scale,” he said.
While acknowledging our enormous potential to achieve environmental restoration efforts, he emphasizes that having the “collective will” is an imperative for this success. “We need to teach ourselves to do the right thing.”
His “Redwood Preserve” project offers an ambitious, actionable path forward to address our climate crisis and thwart global mass extinction through innovative opportunities within a new economic and social paradigm. “Change is hard, but it doesn’t have to mean sacrifice. It can mean opportunity,” Mellenbruch said.
He envisions a Redwood Volunteer Corps, similar in structure to the Peace Corps, where individuals would live together in the preserve and receive health insurance, food, housing and a modest stipend in exchange for their work. The project would also create an abundance of Green jobs spanning fields of science, conservation, education, engineering, hospitality services focused on green tourism, economists and creative professionals.
Drawing upon reports conducted by Save the Redwoods League and heeding recent findings recording the alarming loss of biodiversity from scientists, including the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, Mellenbruch’s Redwood Preserve Project Proposal articulates the urgency of the moment and imperative need for us to act. Now.
“Nature is amazing at building new territory,” he said. “I have faith in nature’s ability to bounce back as long as we give it a chance. Mass extinction is not a foregone conclusion. Experts say it depends on what we do in the coming decades. And people who really care, innovators, people who want to make the world a better place, are more galvanized than ever.”