Partially Buried Woodshed

Partially Buried Woodshed, by Robert Smithson

I spent a good bit of time thinking about entropy at the end of 2021. I blogged about it a few days before Christmas. And coincidentally, my brother Jay sent me a playlist for Christmas that included a song titled “A Glearing Sea” by Mario GarcĂ­a Torres. The chorus of this song repeats the lyrics, “Come, come, O Entropy…” And again, coincidentally, it seems like I listened to Jay’s song right around the time that Jay read my post. And we both freaked out a little bit to talk about entropy. In the course of that conversation, I learned about a rather renowned monument to Entropy which is, coincidentally, right here in Kent, Ohio. Robert Smithson’s “Partially Buried Woodshed.”

The coincidences are so crazy that it actually makes me wonder about the most basic truths of the principle of entropy (everything moving from order to disorder). But then again, maybe that’s just the human thing to do in the face of entropy!

Run Past Partially Buried Woodshed

Anyway, the Partially Buried Woodshed has been the biggest surprise — and perhaps the most interesting story to share. Because it’s been practically in my backyard for years. And I’ve actually noticed it because the fitness app Strava draws its mapping information from some source that includes the landmark. In fact, coincidentally, a friend planned a route for this past Saturday that took us right past the site. I’ve run past this Partially Buried Woodshed and biked past it dozens, if not hundreds, of times — but I never really looked into it. Until the past week.

Run Past Partially Buried Woodshed

It’s right there, on the Southern edge of campus. About half-way between the Student Recreation and Wellness Center and the old blue track. Today, the site just looks like a small, wooded hill (see the picture at the top of this post). But, as a matter of fact, there’s a whole story behind that site. And it’s even significant that the story and the work of art currently rest in the obscure state in which they are. Because it’s all a continuing story about entropy.

The Story of Robert Smithson and the Partially Buried Woodshed

As I’ve come to understand the story, Robert Smithson came to Kent in January of 1970. He had developed a name for himself as a pioneer in the field of “land art” throughout the 1960s and 1970s. So the School of Art at Kent State University wanted him to be a part of their Creative Arts Festival. The original plan was to do some sort of mudflow sculpture, but the ground was too frozen. So Smithson improvised with modifying a structure and piece of land that the University had just recently acquired from an area farmer. Specifically, he used dirt (and presumably snow and ice as well) to partially bury a woodshed until the building’s structural integrity was compromised and then leave it to decompose and disintegrate.

To demonstrate the principle of entropy.

He gave this unconventional “work of art” to the University (an estimated value of $10,000). But at the time, he asked that the University to leave the site alone and let nature run its course over time. Four months later, Kent State became the site of a highly-publicized incident between students protesting the Vietnam War and soldiers from the Ohio National Guard which ended in the deaths of four students. And shortly afterwards, someone turned the Partially Buried Woodshed into a sort of memorial by painting the words “MAY 4 KENT 70” on one of the woodshed’s main support beams. Nothing official; just spontaneous. I get the idea that it happened in the middle of the night.

Five years later, someone set fire to the structure. Details are sketchy, but I get the idea that it happened in the middle of the night. The fire consumed the graffiti inscription and significantly hastened the woodshed’s collapse. In 1984, the University decided to remove the remaining elements of the structure. Probably because of liability concerns. It seems like the University didn’t want to make a big deal out of its decision. Details are sketchy, again, but I get the idea that it happened in the middle of the night.

The site seems to have been mostly forgotten after that. If it wasn’t for the Strava maps, I don’t know if I would have ever heard of the Partially Buried Woodshed before the last week. Most other people in town and on campus seem to be similarly oblivious.

Partially Buried Woodshed, by Robert Smithson

The only visible remnants of the Partially Buried Woodshed are some of the concrete foundations and the dirt that was piled up in that area (now overgrown with grass and trees). In 2016, the University installed a plaque to mark the site. But who actually stops and reads plaques, anyway?

Partially Buried Woodshed, by Robert Smithson

What would Robert Smithson say?

I actually think that Robert Smithson would be thrilled by the way that his Partially Buried Woodshed has aged. Sure, his request for the University to let it be was disregarded: the graffiti… the arson… the construction equipment removing the remnants… Maybe Smithson would be furious. Maybe Kent State University should be ashamed of itself.

But I think Smithson would appreciate the fact that his Partially Buried Woodshed is a perfect demonstration of entropy. Including the inevitable drift into obscurity.

Partially Buried Woodshed, by Robert Smithson

As I’ve reflected on this story, my own visit to the site, and my personal life experiences, I’ve started to see entropy everywhere. I suppose it’s an extension of my November musings on mortality. But I’m not the only one marching mercilessly towards death and disintegration. The same is true for all things. I know it’s dark, but there’s something powerful about acknowledging entropy in all its various forms. Biological entropy… Societal entropy… Moral entropy… Cosmic entropy…

Entropy is happening whether we acknowledge it or not, so we might as well acknowledge it.

But after acknowledging entropy, it can be even more powerful (and empowering) to deliberately decide to reorient oneself and one’s world to the hope of renewal in Jesus. I mean, think about it. An accurate assessment of entropy accentuates the wonder of the words spoken by King Jesus in his forthcoming triumphant return:

“Look! I’m making everything new!”

Revelation 21:5

It seems impossible. It seems like too much to hope for, after all we’ve experienced through all our weary years. But I believe that the hope is real. The Bible describes the way that God’s perfect design has been interrupted by entropy, but it also describes the way He’s initiated a rescue mission. I’ve experienced it in my own life. I’ve watched others experience renewal in inexplicable, awe-inspiring ways. And I find myself praying, at the beginning of this New Year, that I’ll be able to keep walking by faith until His Kingdom comes and His will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

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