The Introduction to Madison Arms concluded with a rather rhetorical question: following the total absence of human maintenance, when the detritus and succession of neglect has almost totally eroded a landscape’s previous identity, exactly what condition is to be maintained? As an answer, I was particularly struck by the Woltz Symposium presentation of alumni Seth Denizen, who followed his previous research on Urban Soil Taxonomy with a discussion of the significance of forensic practices, and “the art of forum,” in defining and understanding the Anthropocene.
…as both a historical archive and a living body, soil exists at precisely that interval between the geological past and future that is bracketed by the term “Anthropocene,” and as a material that is in direct reciprocal relation to all the material processes that define daily life, it constitutes an immense forum, and an immense hole, around which the geological relations that define daily life can emerge as questions in the forum of forensics.
Madison Arms is nothing short of a gaping hole: the dross of Richmond’s post-suburban metabolism. It’s presence forces one to ask what has happened; to search for clues in this anomalous space. And through the process of surveying the site – my investigation into what condition(s) should be enabled to continue in being – the material and spatial organization discovered was strikingly correlated to the “geologic relations” that defined its previous lives. The history of the site’s development is embedded in soil, spatially manifest through patterns of spontaneous vegetation.
The majority of the site is labeled as Turbeville Fine Sandy Loam, but this profile is actually more a collage of clay fill, decomposing asphalt and cracked foundations. A conspicuously generous entrance drive which covered the former quarry pit, now is visible as an axis of meadow and edged by stands of Populas deltoides (all regularly thinned by beaver). Parking lot “wolf” trees serve as orienteering beacons and are ringed by bird dispersed emergent trees. In the former wetland, now more honestly described as “Udorthents Dumps Complex” (10% of Richmond land area), Baccharis halimifolia and Phyllostachys spp. reclaim the land fill, while acres of Pueraria lobata devour the heavily graded fringe to the north. Despite the messy exterior edge, the interior is surprisingly legible and navigable — given one has a 1970 Sanborn.
In many ways, the soil can be thought of as a maintenance instrument at Madison arms, arresting succession and dividing the site into almost pure stands of opportunist species. But beyond a fascinating ecological reading of the urban wild, these botanical alliances also serve as a historical record of human residence, of a community that dispersed along with the tobacco curing that once took place across the tracks. The site is not simply a void in the “urban fabric,” but in an actual neighborhood. And perhaps it is the residential character of this neighborhood which actually needs to be maintained, mediated by the artifacts of past settlement and the new life that has emerged.