Unimproved Land


By the 1830's, land use in the U.S. was conceived as a set of grid squares six miles on a side, covering the entire continent. 180 years later, there exist only pockets of land in this country not predominantly shaped by frequent human intervention. This is particularly true of the region around the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers.

 Parcels of unimproved land, even though small in scale relative to areas developed for residential, commercial, agricultural or recreational use, offer a striking perspective of the scale and energy inherent in many environmental processes. The vitality, resilience and variety of interacting systems and forms to be found there can be astonishing when scrutinized.

 This series of photographs is a shift from the work I had been making in urban environments, which was mostly concerned with social matters. The change of focus, from the predominantly human to non-human was startling, euphoric. I grew up on the plains of Kansas and eastern Colorado, and moved away as a young man. Returning to the geography of my childhood, that had been dramatically transformed in the 25 years I was away living in dense cities, I found tremendous hope in the incredible vitality of ecological forces at work outside the action of bulldozers, cement mixers, herbicides, fertilizers, chainsaws, insecticides, mowers and shredders. While hiking in non-urban areas, I found myself responding to them as if they had a personality that could be rendered as a portrait. I also observed indications of the crucial interconnections within the environment that make my own life possible.

 I hope these photographs will encourage a reconsideration of the value of “unimproved” land. Spending time in these places has given me a deeper sense of faith in the fundamental creative energy of any given ecosystem. It has become much easier for me to see the connections between such systems and our culture. Having gone beyond my concerns for comfort and my aversion to mud, thorns, burrs, allergen producing plants, ticks and mosquitoes, I have come to value the gorgeous bustling proficiency of ecology outside my familiar life within the Cartesian grid of our culture’s typical approach to design and land use. This has been a personal experience and is not historically unique. It is, however, a contrast to the prevailing paradigm of regional and global land-use economics and practices. My wish to share what I’ve seen, through the medium of photography, is founded in the immaterial worth these places have as they have broadened my sense of connection and faith in the tough, exuberant vigor of organic life.


Philip Heying

6 September 2011