There is in our neighborhood a house that has fallen into neglect. Tall weeds and saplings overshadow the grass, vines are clambering up the walls, and a storm-toppled tree spreads an umbrella of roots over the yard and sidewalk. Every time we pass this house, I say to J, “That house is returning to the elements.” In the absence of a diligent caretaker to keep the weeds at bay, even a suburban home quickly succumbs to wildness.


I thought of that house last weekend when Leslee and I visited the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in nearby Lincoln. Every time I am at the DeCordova, I make a point to visit (and photograph) Steven Siegel’s “Big, with Rift,” an installation featuring towering piles of newspapers that are slowly succumbing to decay.

I’ve blogged this installation twice: first in November, 2013, when it was ripening in autumnal glory, and again in January, 2015, when it seemed soggy and dejected beneath a thin layer of wet, sludgy snow. Whereas the other installations at the DeCordova remain more or less the same every time you see them, the compostable nature of newsprint makes Siegel’s piece necessarily temporary.

Don't climb the (toppled) art

I last visited “Big, with Rift” in August, 2015, when it was sprouting ferns and flowers. Poison ivy was climbing one side of its craggy mass, and a chipmunk had burrowed a hole into one exposed edge. What started out as art was quickly becoming nature: you could almost feel the surrounding trees welcoming this looming paper pile back into the fold as one of their own.


Given what I’d seen two years ago, I wasn’t hugely surprised last Saturday to see the latest stage in decomposition. “Big, with Rift” has fallen, its newspaper columns collapsing upon themselves while greenery still sprouts from their toppled tops. Like a neglected house, “Big, with Rift” is returning to the elements, its organic innards returning to the soil and nourishing the next generation of decomposers.


How the mighty have fallen, you might say, or you might draw droll conclusions about Fake News and the “failing New York Times.” There is something sad about a broken statue or toppled tower, but there’s nothing more natural than yesterday’s news becoming the subject of today’s decay.


On a recent foggy-day visit to the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, I took a detour through the drizzle and slush to revisit Steven Siegel’s “Big, with rift,” an installation J and I had seen (and I had blogged) back in November, 2013.


When I’d first seen it, “Big, with rift” seemed perfectly suited to its surroundings, its towering stacks of decaying newspapers standing alongside windblown piles of autumn leaves. On a brisk November day, “Big, with rift” seemed both crisp and earthy, its mass serving as a kind of compost to the plants taking root in its upper layers: paper returned to the elements.

On a gray and drizzly January day, however, the dripping stacks of “Big, with rift” seem almost lonely: a sad, soggy assemblage of heaping trash. There is a kind of dignity in the careful piling up of accomplishments, but there is also something sorry in such hoarding. If newspapers represent the constant influx of new knowledge, it’s senseless to cling to ideas that have outlasted their relevance. There is nothing more useless, after all, than yesterday’s news.


In my original post, I noted that newspaper columns are a kind of structure, “a pile of words we build as a kind of warren, a burrow of beliefs we retreat to, entrenched.” In November, retreating to a burrow sounded cozy; in January, what once was comforting suddenly seems confining. What could be sadder than standing in a slushy woods with nothing more than wet words to keep oneself company? Looking at the dripping pillars of “Big, with rift,” I fought a nonsensical impulse to throw a blanket over the work, or at least to light a fire.


The exhibit I’d gone to the DeCordova to see several weekends ago was “Walden Revisited,” a collection of pieces inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s stint at Walden Pond. I suppose there were dark, drizzly days when living in a shack alongside a pond might have felt like cold comfort to Thoreau, and countless more readers have clung to his words than he probably ever envisioned. But Thoreau, I tell myself, wasn’t a hoarder of ideas, his mental cellar being clear of such clutter. Thoreau lived at Walden Pond for only two years; it was subsequent generations, not Thoreau himself, who tried to deify his image into that of a life-long hermit rather than a wanderer who tried one way of living and then moved on.


When I first saw “Big, with rift” in November, 2013, I felt bad that it would eventually decay into nothingness; in retrospect, I think there are far worse fates than simply fading away. Left on their own for long, stacks of paper will compress and solidify, their sentiments becoming sedimentary. Instead of being piled higher and deeper, wouldn’t any active and vibrant mind prefer to clean house, jettisoning any junk that has outlived its usefulness?

Come spring, I trust “Big, with rift” will be reborn, wildflowers sprouting from its upper layers like hair. In the meantime, though, I think this slush-sopped stack sends a cautionary tale. Before you cling to your own or anyone else’s ideas, remember that words are too heavy to hoard.

Old news

One of my favorite pieces from yesterday’s trip to the deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park was Steven Siegel’s “Big, with rift,” a site-specific installation utilizing the media of “paper and flora.” The piece is an assemblage of newspapers stacked in what appears to be a rectangular cellar hole surrounded by stone walls. You can view the pillars of piled paper from above—that is, from ground level—or you can walk down a gentle slope to stand alongside them at cellar-level, the stacks towering nearly as tall as the walls that surround and shelter them.

Returning to nature

The newspapers that make up “Big, with rift” are well-weathered and gradually decaying, with vegetation sprouting from their upper layers: the printed word returning to the elements. I was amazed to realize, however, that this installation has been at the deCordova since the summer of 2009: somehow, I’d missed it during my last trip there, and I wouldn’t have guessed that freestanding paper piles could so successfully weather four years’ worth of New England seasons.

Paper piles and stone walls

Viewing (slowly) decaying paper piles alongside much older, well-weathered stone walls is particularly evocative: how long, exactly, will any of our words last? Today’s news is tomorrow’s compost, and the most insightful of today’s newspaper articles will wrap tomorrow’s fish and chips or line next week’s canary cage. The spoken word is ephemeral—no more solid than a breath—and paper is only a bit more permanent: paper may cover rock, but rock outlasts us all. But the premise behind the saying “the pen is mightier than the sword” is that weighty words do indeed last, echoing down the ages to transmit wit and wisdom from one generation to the next.


What is, after all, a newspaper column but a structural thing: a pile of words we build as a kind of warren, a burrow of beliefs we retreat to, entrenched. What I declare today might not match what I believe tomorrow, but we write on, regardless, as if words were capable of creating a lasting legacy: a cumulative weight of word upon word that fills in, plasters, and supports our notion of self. How many of us shore up the cellar-holes of identity with pillars of opinion, our words as much as our clothes making the man?

J in the stacks

Books are believed to be more lasting than newspaper, magazine, or (especially) blog articles: books, after all, are bound, their covers providing a kind of protection, and we count as “ephemera” the scraps of paper—posters, pamphlets, and ticket stubs—that recount the mundane minutiae of our days. But perhaps the paper trails we each leave tell just as much about us as anything, a grocery or to-do list speaking proverbial volumes.


If our stone-walled cellars could talk, they’d have many a tale to tell, but so would the castoff papers that pile in our basements, offices, and drawers. Books may be bound, but newspapers are un-bound, papering over the rift between sacred and profane, serious and silly, local and global: all the words, in a word, that are fit to print.

This is my Day 11 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.