Five Questions for Basia Irland

New Mexico artist Basia Irland’s feature in the March/April 2013 issue of Orion, “Books of Ice,” presents an art form that participates in the creation of landscape as well as beauty. Below, Basia tells about her practice and vision, which involves embedding ice-block carvings with native seeds to create texts that rejuvenate struggling watersheds.

On March 19, at 7 p.m. Eastern, join Irland and Daniel McCormick, another restorative artist whose work has been profiled in Orion, during Orion’s next live web event. The pair will discuss how projects like Irland’s are conceived and implemented, and how they succeed in healing the world around them.


Where did the idea to mix seeds and books as the basis of an art project come from? They are both such powerful metaphors, as well as practical objects.

The title of the larger series from which “Ice Books” is drawn, “receding/reseeding,” was conceived for “Weather Report,” an exhibition about climate change curated by art critic and author Lucy Lippard for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Boulder, Colorado. In order to call attention to melting glaciers and embed an action within the sculpture, I carved a 250-pound tome from ice and engraved it with a seed text of mountain maple (Acer spicatum), columbine flowers (Aquilegia coerulea), and Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens). Four people carried the heavy book out into the current of Boulder Creek. As it rested between two large rocks, viewers could see the water flowing under the ice. One of the photographs in Orion shows three students standing in the river as they “read” the seed text on the book.

Arapaho Glacier, which provides about 40 percent of Boulder’s drinking water, is receding rapidly. When it is gone, where will Boulder residents obtain water? These sculptures depict a problem—receding glaciers—and a small suggestion for action—reseeding riparian zones to reduce some of the effects of climate change.

In future book launches, there are plans to attach a monitoring probe (temperature, light, dissolved oxygen) and a micro-cam, so we can watch the seeds progress down the river become deposited along the banks. A GPS locator will also be installed in the ice so we can find the data logger and camera.

Can you describe the process of making an ice book?

River water is frozen, carved into the form of a book, embedded with an “ecological language” or “riparian text” consisting of local native seeds, and placed back into the stream. The seed texts are released as the ice melts in the current.

The physical methodology of producing the sculptures is kept simple and low-tech: first, scavenged cardboard boxes of appropriate size are found and lined with used plastic. Next, water is poured to the desired depth and placed in a freezer. (Twice, due to the size of the sculptures, I have worked with chefs so that we could access walk-in freezers and create books weighing 250-300 pounds.) After the ice is solid, it is removed from the container and carved using a variety of tools. The initial large pieces are removed with a Japanese saw; the more delicate carving of the book cover and pagination occurs with numerous attachments on a Dremel tool. Incised lines for the script are cut deep and wide enough for seeds to be inserted, after which they are spritzed with water to form a film that holds them in place.

The work has to be done with minimal amount of melting to the sculpture. When I worked out doors in Idaho, it was cold and dry, so with the battery-powered Dremel I could carve by the river for several hours. But in hot, damp Georgia, the books started to melt almost before I could begin to carve, so we had to stay near freezer units. In West Virginia, we were given a biology lab in which to work with industrial freezers that were, during our stay, empty of specimens.

Although I try to keep my work as green as possible, I am aware that many countries, of course, do not have freezers (although books have also been sculpted from river clay) or easy electrical access, and that by using electricity I am adding to the carbon footprint. I also add to my footprint when I fly to foreign destinations, even when I buy carbon offsets. But these are the dilemmas posed to those of us who try to work for a good cause.

The process of creation is as important to me as the sculpture, which, in this case, is ephemeral—part of the significance of the ice books is that they melt away. The time and energy that has gone into the carving of the books vanishes in the current of a stream.

We record some of our work in the documentary film receding/reseeding, in which we see ice books launched into rivers in Belgium, France, Italy, Spain, and across the United States and Canada. The film was begun in 2007 and is updated as new projects occur.

How do you choose the seeds you’ll embed in each book?

I work with stream ecologists, river restoration biologists, First Nation Elders, and botanists to ascertain the best seeds for each specific riparian zone. The role of research about each particular location is paramount and consists of the usual web searches and head-in-book investigations, but discussions with elders, scientists, and river-citizens are often even more informative. Spending time hanging out with the river, intently listening and closely observing, is invaluable.

That a tiny, muted bundle can transform into some enormous loud green tree or magenta flower or gnarly shrub is wondrous—and an individual seed is a miraculous sculptural wonder. Each is distinctive and exquisitely formed. The wispy seed of the mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus montanus), for instance, is a minute, furry aircraft, with a “tail” that corkscrews in spirals. On some of the ice sculptures, I utilize pods in addition to seeds, such as those of the tapering desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) used to form the Roman numerals on a grouping of ice manuscripts.

The seeds transcribe an international ecological text. Since it is not a specific language—neither Hindi nor Spanish, Swahili nor Russian—the ice books can be read as a universal invocation of the Earth. The tongues of the glaciers are receding, the voices of our rivers are being dammed and clogged with toxic debris. Who are the scribes writing about our waters and where are the libraries that store their moist stories?

There is something elegantly sculptural about the form of a book. When open, it looks as if it could fly right off the shelf and out through the open window, flap its winged pages, and scatter letters to the ground. When closed, a book is a toolbox, a sarcophagus waiting to be pried open, with texts on three sides deciphering some of the contents.

Where have the books been launched? How do you pick the sites?

Actually, the sites pick me. Most of the ice books have been created and launched in places where I have been invited to work, but I have never met the people until I arrive. (Although, after intensive work side-by-side with the rivers, deep friendships have formed.) I try not to have any preconceived ideas about a place until I have physically visited and put my feet into the river and walked sections of its banks, because no matter how many watershed maps or books or websites one studies, there is nothing that replaces being in the actual place, embraced by all the senses.

Here is a list of the places I have worked with rivers, creeks, and streams:

Bagmati River, Nepal
Big Wood River, Idaho
Birch Creek, Ohio
Blue Nile, Ethiopia
Boulder Creek, Colorado
Canal, Italy
Canal St. Martin, France
Deckers Creek, West Virginia
Ditch, France
Don River, Canada
Great Miami River, Ohio
Karun River, Iran
Mississippi River Delta, Louisiana
Missouri River, Missouri
Muga River, Spain
Narmada River, India
Nisqually River, Washington
Oconee River, Georgia
Ottawa River, Canada
Rio Grande, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico
River Schelde, Belgium
River Dart, England
Senakw Staulk (False Creek), Canada
Shookumchuck River, Washington
White Nile, Egypt
Wilson Creek, North Carolina

“Books of Ice” is, of course, not just about creating something beautiful to look at—it’s about restoring landscapes, too. Can you say a bit about your conception of the relationship between art and becoming better stewards of the natural world?

The devastation we humans cause rivers is extraordinary and the need to educate and activate local communities is vast. A green future cannot be mapped without healthy watersheds. The cartography of the next generations must include communities working together to insure clean, viable river systems—the arteries of our land.

receding/reseeding emphasizes the necessity of communal effort, scientific knowledge, and poetic intervention to deal, in one small way, with the complex issues of climate disruption and watershed restoration. Recently, I was asked to write a definition of the term “eco-art” for a New York University Press book, and it seems appropriate to add the first paragraph here to help put the work I create into a wider context:

Eco-art involves a transdisciplinary, multimedia, activist-oriented process, which addresses environmental and sustainability issues. There is a shift away from art as commodity and toward new creative possibilities of art in service to communities and ecosystems. Eco-art includes artists who consider it their role to help raise awareness and create actions about important issues and natural processes; invite participation and devise innovative strategies to engage diverse communities; work directly with others to augment the knowledge associated with particular fields; produce works which inspire people to reassess the notion of commons. Eco-artists emphasize collaboration. Many of these artists work with indigenous and local community members, and specialists from a range of disciplines including media, education, architecture, performance arts, sociology, engineering, and the gamut of sciences. The ethos for this group of artists encourages the long term flourishing of social and natural environments in which we reside and addresses the impacts humans have on ecosystems, the places we live, and the other species with whom we share these places.

Learn more about Basia and her work at