Landowners Put Hope in Art Project to Combat Pipeline

Apr 19, 2016

The blue trees follow the Brush Mountain section of the planned corridor of the Mountain Valley Pipeline
Credit Robin Boucher

The energy companies behind the Mountain Valley Pipeline project say it will bring energy reliability and greater access to natural gas in the southwest Virginia region, but some of the landowners affected by the pipeline aren’t convinced its creation is a good thing.

Brush Mountain is a Montgomery County area that currently stands in the way of the latest planned route of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. It would be one of a few interstate natural gas lines the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, is evaluating that would run through Virginia, but some landowners in the New River Valley who fear FERC might approve the pipeline, are trying other means to get their message heard. They’re turning to music. 

"It takes a concept of a musical line which is a long narrow shape and it imposes that upon the corridors where the natural gas pipeline expansions are being projected," says Aviva Rahmani, an ecological artist in New York, with her Blued Trees Symphony, a project she hopes will stop new pipelines all across the country, "within that aerial configuration trees are painted [with blue butter milk paint.]"

Rahmani then transfers the notes that the painted trees represent from their geographic configuration  to a measure of music, which becomes the Blued Trees Symphony. The final product, the painted tress and the symphony combined is then copyrighted. But has combing ecological art and copyright law been of use in stopping a pipeline? Well, yes…in Canada at least.

Meredith Hickman, a Virginia Tech student, paints one of the Brush Mountain trees
Credit Robin Boucher

  "It's based on the concept of an artist in Canada named Peter von Thieselhausen who copyrighted the top six inches of his soil and kept a pipeline from going through," says Robin Boucher, the Blacksburg artist who is bringing the Blued Trees Symphony to the New River Valley.

The idea is that copyrighting the artwork might protect the trees from the eminent domain claim the pipeline has to unearth the land temporarily - and thus the trees - during installation.  Boucher led a group of southwest Virginia residents and Virginia Tech students to paint a stretch of trees on Brush Mountain. She says, "What we've done here is going to be allegro because...trees are really close together."

The score being composed on the trees themselves forces the music to bend to the natural environment and its creators hope the Mountain Valley Pipeline does the same. But so far at least, no judge has turned that hope into precedent.

The first trees Rahmani painted, the overture of the symphony, were in New York. She hoped it would stop a pipeline in the Northeast called Algonquin, but Spectra Energy still constructed that pipeline, and a judge ruled they acted within the law.

Rahmani says, "It was destroyed and honestly for a long time I found that so overwhelmingly upsetting that they had done it that I wasn't sure what my next move should be...Where we did the overture one of the problems was that we were only brought into the process fairly late to the game."

But whether or not starting the legal process earlier here in the New River Valley results in a victory for the symphony, Rahmani says the project will live on

She says, "The ideas in this project- the legal ideas, the aesthetic ideas- they can destroy every last trace of the project, but the ideas can't be killed because once you get an idea out there it's never lost."

Mountain Valley Pipeline was contacted for this story but did not provide comment.