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Innovative Sculptures Restoring Truckee River Bank

Credit Nevada Museum of Art
The Nature of Art Project by Daniel McCormick and Mary O'Brien. This is the Nature Conservancy in Nevada's River Fork Ranch Preserve in the Carson Valley near Genoa, Nevada. Similar sculptures are being constructed along the Truckee River.

Artists and conservationists have teamed up to make watershed sculptures beside the Truckee River. Along with their aesthetic beauty, using basket-weaving techniques to hold natural materials together, the artwork will actually restore damaged flood plains over the next few years. Reno Public Radio’s Michelle Bliss reports.

On the banks of the Truckee River in Storey County, at a site called the McCarranRanch Preserve, Daniel McCormick and Mary O’Brien are leading a group of volunteers.

Credit Tim Torell / The Nature Conservancy
The Nature Conservancy
Volunteers work on a watershed sculpture by the bank of the Truckee River.

They’re jamming tree branches into this long, sinuous sculpture that winds alongside the river. Right now, the land is parched and barren. It looks more like moonscape than anything else, but the artists say that’ll soon change:

Mary O'Brien: “When you have a dead flood plain, you don’t have a vibrant river. You just have a channel with water flowing through it. There’s nothing growing on the banks.”

Daniel McCormick: “So, we’re working on a biological level to bring some of the wildlife back, reestablish vegetation…”

Mary O'Brien: “…creating a little microcosm of a healthy flood plain just in this 80-foot sculpture…”

Daniel McCormick: “…all made of willow branches, and then it’s tied together with willow branches, and then it’s planted with willow sprigs. The idea is to get this to grow and become a thicket.”

That thicket will attract all sorts of bugs, which will bring in the birds and other small creatures that used to live here. Back in the ‘60s, the river channel was straightened for a flood control project, which caused the groundwater to drop beyond the reach of local vegetation. Since then, Mary O’Brien says almost all of the riparian forest has been lost, along with many native bird species.

Credit Kim Jardine

“I’m an urban dweller; a lot of these people are urban dwellers," O'Brien says. "Why should we be way the heck out here doing this? This river affects us. It’s not just entertainment and recreation. There are species here, there is life here, that if it goes away will affect all of us.”

Scientists now know that when rivers are allowed to meander, that natural flow supports the surrounding ecosystem. That’s why The Nature Conservancy in Nevada has been working for more than a decade to re-shape this flood plain.

These watershed sculptures are an innovative addition to the overall project, so innovative that the Nevada Museum of Art had to be involved, too.

“So what we see here on the left as we walk in are these beautiful watercolor maps," says Bill Fox, who directs the museum's Center for Art + Environment, where models and paintings and videos from this project have been on display since December.  

“There are a handful of people on the planet doing this kind of work.”

Historically, Fox says artists used to picture nature, think a painting of majestic mountains from the 1700’s. Then, they began capturing the human footprint on the planet, think black-and-white photos of suburban sprawl from the ‘70s. By the ‘90s…

Credit Kim Jardine

“Artists began to say, ‘We want to make interventions in the landscape. We’re not just going to take a picture of it; we’re not just going to take a picture of how we’ve affected nature; we’re actually going to go in and try to deal with how we’ve disrupted nature.’ Art that walks in the world.”

Walking along the McCarran Ranch Preserve, Chris Sega with The Nature Conservancy stops at another site, one that was restored in 2006.

“These cotton wood trees we’ve planted are 30 feet tall," Sega says.

When work began, the bank was completely bare. You could see for miles.

“Do you see the river at all?" Sega asks. "You don’t even see the river. There’s so much vegetation between us and the river you can’t see but a tiny, little sliver of it. The change is happening.”

And it’s not just the cottonwoods and willows that have sprung forth.

“Look at that," Sega points to a jumble of animal tracks on the ground. "There’s raccoon or skunk prints, and all the wading birds in here in this muddy ground. It’s like a little highway through here.”

Sega says that highway is proof—one decade out—that change is happening.

Michelle Billman is a former news director at KUNR Public Radio.