02/25/2012 03:31 pm ET Updated Oct 11, 2012

Double Negative : Minimal Nature

Driving through the Nevada desert, we bumped off the asphalt onto a long dirt road. The students traveling with me gasped. Few of them -- all Yale undergraduates, enrolled in architect Steven Harris' senior studio, here to visit works of land-art as well as alternative energy fields -- had driven a dirt road before.

We skittered out onto the unfathomably vast valley floor and into the mosaic of plants, grading from green to ochre to gray, surrounded by chains of rough, largely unvegetated mountains. Although we still had a couple miles to go before reaching environmental artist Michael Heizer's Double Negative, it felt as if we had arrived We were suddenly plunged into the landscape, rather than driving on a paved road, looking at it.

In the 1960s, Heizer surveyed this patch of desert to find the perfect spot to construct his work: two deep cuts in the side of a mesa aligning perfectly, bracketing a view of the mountains to the east, and the low river wash in the foreground. I had seen photographs of Double Negative since graduate school in the late 1980s, when landscape architects such as Peter Walker drew inspiration from minimalist artists like Heizer, Andre and Judd.

These landscape designers wanted to move beyond pastoral representations of nature like Central Park, to get to the essence of the landscape, bled from the experience of the pastoral ideal over the past 150 years. Environmental artists could make people look at the landscape, and nature, in a new way. Isolating elements of nature -- rock, earth, water, wind -- from the "natural" scenes we had come to expect, the works helped us experience forces of nature as if for the first time.

Looking into the two cuts -- together measuring almost a quarter mile -- from the mesa above, I started to worry -- should I photograph them from that side? And then walking around the rim -- Hey, where is the other cut, anyway, can't see it from here. And then fear of disappointment, fear that the students will be disappointed -- Does the reality of it fall short of the photographs? But then, walking down into the first and longer cut, my chatter-head receded and my body began to take over.

To get down into Double Negative, you have to climb/slide down slanted ridges of stone -- layers of sedimentary rock compressed over millions of years. The vertical cuts reveal the different horizontal strata of the earth, the different reactions of each layer to erosive forces of wind and water. Standing at maybe a sixth of the height of the cut, I felt in my chest a strange weight. I was experiencing something available on a regular basis only to gravediggers and archaeologists: a coffin's-eye, a ruin's-eye view of the world.

At the bottom of the cut the ground cedes to sand and stones -- materials that in the fifty years since Heizer made these cuts slipped, blew or washed down from the walls and the mesa. This irregular topography is a record of natural forces over time. Plant seeds have found intermittent opportunities down here to take root and grow in soils that favor them, in enough shade for some that wouldn't survive out on the mesa and with access to the smallest traces of seasonal rains. I felt like a tiny creature walking into a desert terrarium; a living, breathing landscape poignant partly because it is housed in a form so obviously man-made.

About three quarters of the way into the first cut, a gathering wind started to push me back; this long negative in the earth, open at one end to a plateau, acts as a ferocious wind tunnel. I moved into the shadow to steady myself. I felt the temperature drop sharply. I moved out of the cut and saw across the plateau, plainly aligned, the first negative's double.

Double Negative acts as a primal sort of rehab, a minimalist nature therapy. Or a form of the Zen practice, "What is it?" This is the sand, my foot; this is sun, on my arm; this is my face, in the wind. Once out of the cut, you look east to the rugged, veined mountains and the lazy river oxbow in front of it, and you are in it. In the landscape rather than surveying it. Whatever it is, you a part of it.

Sometimes when I try to detox, most of the time unsuccessfully, from the worst of this overextended, all-consuming, multi-tasking, speeding culture we live in, I feel like a recovering stroke victim practicing to feel and move and communicate as if for the first time. Visiting Double Negative we walked silently, felt our breathing, our pace, our mind-chatter all slowing. This minimalist work engaged us in a truly transformative practice: just being and feeling, connecting out in nature. Just slowing down.