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Plant Focus

Oaks on the Rocks

Previous articles in our series Oak Artists have featured artists who draw, paint, or photograph oaks. This one looks at an installation that incorporates living oaks as a key element of the work of art. Andy Goldsworthy’s A Garden of Stones at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City, New York, is a powerful memorial of the Jewish Holocaust. It consists of 18 granite boulders, on each of which stands a Quercus prinoides (dwarf chinquapin oak), seemingly sprouting magically from the stone. Commissioned by the Museum 20 years ago, the piece is installed on a second floor terrace with a view of New York Harbor, with Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty in the distance.

A Garden of Stones in winter
A Garden of Stones in winter, with the Statue of Liberty on the horizon, right of center

The granite boulders are massive, ranging from just under 1 m to almost 2 m high, and weighing up to 13 tons. Their number, 18, is not random: each letter in the Hebrew alphabet has a numerical value, and those that make up chai, the Hebrew word for "life" (as in the common Jewish toast, “L’Chaim!" (To life!)), add up to 181. Stone was an important material for the artist: “There is life in a stone,” he says. “You can feel that stones have witnessed so many things.” In order to create the illusion that the oaks were growing out of the rock, each boulder had to be hollowed out, creating a conical cavity which would be filled with soil. Some of the boulders had their inside cored out with drills and blasting with high-pressure water jets, but others were hollowed using a 2,200 °C blowtorch, which essentially melts the stone. The artist preferred this method as more appropriate for the sculpture: “The rock surrenders to fire, because fire created it in the first place. But fire cleans as well as sculpts. Shooting flames at granite not only reenacts primordial geology but confers the incinerations of genocide into the flames of sanctification.” For Goldsworthy, melting by fire was the ideal way to work the stone: “The process taps the latent energy within the rock, and is much more sympathetic to the nature of granite than the clinical cut of the saw.”

Scarred rock
"I am not interested in a pristine surface," wrote Goldsworthy about the stones he used. "The process of lifting and working the stones has left score marks and scratches which are evidence of the latest journey the stones have been on, just as the stones were once marked by the glaciers or more recently by farmers' chains. These marks will fade over time. I do not want instantly aged stones just as I don't want instant mature trees. I like the lichen and surface of the stones but acknowledge that this will slowly change as they adapt to their new surroundings."

At the top of each cavity, a small opening was made for the tree to grow out of. Goldsworthy could have installed mature trees in the boulders, but he preferred instead to plant young seedlings: “There’s something very beautiful and profound about a flick of growth emerging out of a huge boulder, the fragility of that life.” His original design had called for dwarf oaks, but he decided on Q. prinoides after seeing them at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston. He described the visit in his diary: “I then saw a small oak that was exactly what I wanted. It is the image that I had in my mind when thinking of the garden. It had a wonderful character without being contorted. It was about twelve feet high with a stout trunk . . . There were several growing in the area, which revealed that this species can grow in a variety of ways, both single and multistemmed.” The trees had been planted in 1884 and were almost 120 years old when Goldsworthy saw them. Slow growth and small terminal stature were ideal traits for a memorial meant to endure through generations. They also had to be tough plants. Not only would they have to negotiate the constraints of granite around their roots, but they would also have to battle the stressful urban conditions of Downtown Manhattan with its fume-laden air and sudden gusts of wind from the harbor. The plants’ struggle to survive echoes the experience of the victims whose memory the installation is dedicated to. As Goldsworthy put it, “The trees I wanted couldn’t be decorative, they need to be tough little S.O.B.s.”

Multistemmed and single stemmed
Both single stemmed and multistemmed trees grow out of the stones: some still have room to grow, others are already pushing against the edges of their holes

The trees may still meet an untimely end. According to Prof. Tom Whitlow, a plant ecologist whom Goldsworthy consulted, as the growing tree trunks start pressing against the stone girdles at their base, the cambium immediately beneath the bark could be crushed. This would prevent nutrients reaching the roots which would eventually atrophy and die. But this possibility is incorporated into the concept of the work: a dead tree remaining among the living would be appropriate for the installation. Also, if the oaks yield acorns before they die, these could be used if the Museum opts for replanting, which could be done by the descendants of Holocaust survivors.

Oaks on the rocks in Cornell
Three supplementary stones were installed at Cornell Botanic Gardens (Ithaca, New York), as an extension of the exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The trees were planted in 2004. Two of them have already died, perhaps strangled by the stone. Might the trees grow faster in the more benign conditions at Cornell, thus hastening their demise?

The trees growing on the stones now were planted as seedlings on September 17, 2003, by several groups of people, some of the families that included Holocaust survivors and their children. The seedlings had less of a root ball than anticipated, so the hole left for them had to be partially filled before the trees were planted. “The act of filling the stones recalled that of burial,” wrote Goldsworthy. “One Holocaust survivor said as she filled the stone that she had spent two years in Auschwitz, and lost six members of her family to the gas chambers, and that now she had a place to bury them. Each stone became a tomb upon when a tree was then planted—a poignant mixture of life and death.”

Garden of Stones at night
A Garden of Stones at night

The exhibition is open to the public at no charge, and merits repeated viewing, both to appreciate its different aspects as seasons change or at different times of day, and also to observe how the piece changes as the trees grow. Visit the Museum of Jewish Heritage's website to see more photos of the installation, including ones in summer with the trees in full leaf. See "Further reading", below, for more information and the sources of the quotations in this text. You can also follow the whole process of its creation, from burning out the stones to planting the seedlings, in the video below:

Further reading

Goldsworthy, A. and T. Fiske. 2017. Andy Goldsworthy: Projects. Abrams.

Kaufman, J.E. 2003. "Stones Full of Life and Memory." The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/14/arts/art-architecture-stones-full-of-life-and-memory.html Accessed February 17, 2022

Schama, S. 2003. "The Stone Gardener." The New Yorkerhttps://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2003/09/22/the-stone-gardener Accessed February 17, 2022

Solomon D. 2004. "Stone Diarist." The New York Times Magazine. https://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/16/magazine/stone-diarist.html Accessed February 17, 2022


1 The Hebrew word chai (חי), pronounced like the English word “high”, consists of two letters, Het (ח), which has a numerical value of 8, and Yod (י), numerical value 10.

Photos © Roderick Cameron