The Modern Alchemist

Guest post by Renee Garner

Words like hyperaccumulator and phytoremediation sound like something straight out of a 1960s Sci-Fi movie and hardly verbs describing gardens. But when the conceptual, and socially minded artist Mel Chin creates a garden, you get these lengthy words among others. 

Mel Chin is a Texas born artist now living in North Carolina; and when he plants, he plants for good.  In 1990 Chin began working with the United Stated Department of Agriculture’s senior scientist, Rufus Chaney, to plan, sculpt and garden Pig’s Eye Landfill in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  Together they assessed hyperaccumulator plants, which absorb heavy metals through their root systems and store them during the growth process. The heavy metals in this case are zinc and cadmium, and the project is called “Revival Field”, not “Revive James Hetfield.” The ultimate transformation occurs through phytoremediation, or the transference of the metal laden dirt to ore quality metals (harvested through the plants for reuse) and revived, healthy soil.

The Minnesota test site lasted 3 years, and while the trial run was productive, the soil was still somewhat polluted, and not yet reusable.  A second garden was planted in Palmerton, Pennsylvania and another has been installed in Stuttgart, Germany. Ongoing tests are run for productivity, as other plants are researched for affective levels of metal accumulation. 

Apparently, Chin always knew the plants were up to something.


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3 thoughts on “The Modern Alchemist

  1. yes, i’d heard about this project. even more amazing than the fact that these plants can purify and revitalise the soil, is this:
    “They not only cleanse and restore the contaminated land, but once harvested and incinerated, the plants’ ash yields metals that can be recycled and reused.”

    however, as great as this project is, i’m very sceptical about it being ‘art’. if the definition of art is so broad as to cover a project like this, then just about any action can be art…

  2. Does it really matter if this is art? There are heavily contaminated land areas all over the world that could be cleaned. I’m a passionate plant lover and know that they are the answer to our future.

  3. This is fascinating………how long/how many seasons does it take to ‘cleanse’ the soil, and to what depth? Do these ‘hyperacumulator’ plants absorb any other pollutants, other than heavy metals?

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