I was in Chicago twice over the past couple of weeks, once on a visit for a few days and then passing through O’Hare Airport with an hour to kill between flights. Both times I saw the face of the New Garden, fascinating and not always beautiful, but intensely uplifting.
|Aquaponic Arugula bed, watered from tilapia tanks, at The Plant
Two weeks ago my son & I had enough time together to spend a Saturday afternoon touring The Plant, a vertical urban farm on the south side at 47th and Ashland. It is in the middle of the old Stockyards of fame, housed in a 93,000 square foot concrete former meat packing plant. The interior of this building had been kept at below freezing for over 100 years — imagine that! — and on that chilly April day it seemed to have retained much of its coldness.
A completely visionary and masterful project, The Plant is midway in its plan to become totally functional by 2015. I will quote their “About” page here as they can explain things better than I:
What is The Plant? A Farm for the Future.
From its beginnings as a 93,500 s.f. meatpacking facility, The Plant is being repurposed into a net-zero energy vertical farm and food business operation. A complex and highly interrelated system, one-third of The Plant will hold aquaponic growing systems and the other two-thirds will incubate sustainable food businesses by offering low rent, low energy costs, and (eventually) a licensed shared kitchen. The Plant will create 125 jobs in Chicago’s economically distressed Back of the Yards neighborhood – but, remarkably, these jobs will require no fossil fuel use. Instead, The Plant will install a renewable energy system that will eventually divert over 10,000 tons of food waste from landfills each year to meet all of its heat and power needs.
Aeroponic Garden in Terminal 2 at O’Hare Airport
I had been told by a friend that another urban miracle — or at least, curiosity — had opened at O’Hare Airport last fall, so when I was changing planes there last week I had time to go find it in terminal 2 at the rotunda, where several wings converge. This garden has been dubbed “Aeroponic”, no doubt in reference to its location, and it was a bright (really bright) and uplifting place to spend an hour — comfortable armchairs around a glowing, cordoned off growing area of 26 tubular columns with plants inserted regularly along their length and water flowing throughout a piped in, closed system. Not sure about the nutrient source, but the plants grown were to be used at some of the more elite restaurants at the airport (sadly, none of which were close to my gate) such as Rick Bayless’ Frontera outpost there.
Having just visited the grubby, hardworking, and not for profit vision of The Plant 10 days before, this seemed definitely upscale and glam. Without the tilapia nutrient feed loop, I couldn’t figure out what is feeding those plants: one of the criticisms of hydroponic farming is the expensive nutrients which must be pumped into the water, hence making it less sustainable than the newly coined “aquaponic” culture used at The Plant.
But I can say that the visit was uplifting for me, and provided the sweet frisson of seeing airplanes out the big windows while sitting and watching lettuce grow.
I still wonder at the transformation that continues to manifest itself in my life. After moving to this rural community 4 years ago, we revelled in the garden and it has grown (thanks far more to Ben’s efforts than my own: I am the harvester-cook, not the digger-planter) to a satisfyingly grand scale. But the “back 40”, as I like to call the wild portion of our 1.4 acres beyond the vegetable garden, has slowly gotten out of control. The first two years we hired in someone to disc & plant it for us, so we had beautiful buckwheat one summer with sunflowers mixed in, then winter wheat the following spring. But that was expensive and somewhat unpredictable as we depended upon our neighbors with farming equipment to do this for us. So we gave up the last couple of years and watched it go to weeds.
Last week Ben took the plunge and, after doing his typically meticulous research, bought a secondhand 1950 Ford tractor — beautifully maintained and restored — and several huge attachments including a bush hog. Who would have thought how utterly exciting I would find this addition! It means we can now begin to truly shape the land, take control of our own property and make something really wonderful. I can even imagine learning how to drive it myself. It is so beautifully simple and straightforward! It all makes clear sense. And it is so beautiful. I drove in yesterday from a week away and saw it sitting in the drive next to Ben’s Subaru and was jsut thrilled. You might remember my earlier posts about tractor ribbons and the tractor parade, so to have a sweet machine of our own like this is fabulous.
This morning in a short space of time Ben jumped on it and bush-hogged (what a word) the weeds in back, and though it is scruffy and ugly at the moment it is now a ripe slate for our visions. Ben wants to build a labyrinth suitable for riding horses in (something he has been working toward with his sister Cordelia , for the Labyrinth Society Gathering this fall). I would love to see a field of lavender out there some day. We are this much closer to those visions now.
I should note that Ben is particularly in his element here — a lifelong connection satisfied. His family was in the farm machinery business as Nicholson’s of Newark, for a century, winning gold medals at the Great Exhibition for their innovative equipment. Ben was raised in the expectation that he would take over the business, but in the 1970’s the business went under in the dire British economy and Ben went on to architecture school instead. I hope he will mount the Nicholson’s tractor seat (which currently hangs over the front door) on his new baby.
This past weekend my husband Ben spent the entire 2 days outside in the warm October sun, raking leaves into a beautiful labyrinth at the base of a brilliant sugar maple in the Harmonist Cemetery. He made a second labyrinth nearby by raking pine needles. These are temporal works of art, maintained by constant Zen-like raking, beautiful to walk and to gaze up through the boughs of the generous tree-host.
Writing about the past has made me think more about that glorious time in 1985 when I was Queen for a Day. I won a prize in the Third Venice Biennale of Architecture for a set of weavings based on the Villa Farsetti in Santa Maria di Sala. A heady time: my career was just getting off the ground then, and the publicity from the prize was extraordinary and rocketed me into the next level of notariety.
I entered the competition because my husband Ben Nicholson (who has now participated in the Biennale 3 times!) was deeply involved in his own projects (at the urging of his former teacher, Daniel Libeskind, who had been invited to participate) and he thought it would fit my interests as well. I had been making weavings which were exploring gardens & architecture as subject matter, and so the idea of making a set of weavings like a set of architectural plans, about a specific place appealed greatly to me. It gave me a new method of working too, which held for many years, making cycles of work about historic places, usually with gardens, and working from plan overview into intimate detail as a kind of storytelling.
There were 9 tapestries, including the 4 shown here of the front gardens & reflecting pool; a guest wing; a green house (see earlier post); hedgerows; stables; more gardens.
The magazine article is from American Craft Magazine, Feb/March 1986, published at the time of the birth of my son, William, who is getting his BFA from School of the Art Institute of Chicago on May 16!