Seneca Army Depot

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Last week I had the chance to visit the Seneca Army Depot thanks to the Seneca White Deer organization.  The Depot occupies over 10,000 acres by the town of Romulus in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.  It was constructed as part of the national effort to prepare to enter WWII, and the site was selected because of its proximity to the east coast and Great Lakes ports, and relative invulnerability due to its inland location, and the high amount of cloud cover in the Finger Lakes region.  Currently many areas of the Depot are slowly rewilding- the firebreaks are turning in to forest, the steel cages of the igloos are rusting shut.  The Depot was decommissioned in 2001, and while some zones have found new users, the brutalist infrastructure and ammo dumps and “miscellaneous component burning sites” keep the USACE busy and industrial businesses away.

The spatial organization of the Seneca Army Depot was structured along very clear lines; it is a landscape of blast radii, fire breaks, access control, and lines of transportation infrastructure layered on top of glaciated highlands, historical family farms, and the climax forest of upstate New York.  These clear intentions have had some interesting side effects- large osprey nests can be seen throughout the Depot, and the world’s largest concentration of white deer inhabit the depot.  A white coat is evidently a recessive gene, and when the depot was fenced in 1941 with 8-foot high chain link, a number of white deer where captured inside.  Anecdotally, it was the whim of a few controlling officers who decided that no white deer could be hunted, even though brown deer were freely hunted to keep the population down and prevent starvation among the deer.

Today the white deer nearly 200 strong, and are something between a mutant and a cyborg- they exist thanks to a natural but rare genetic mutation, and a very precarious relationship with a now-rusting, 70-year old chain-link fence.  This landscape also provides an extreme example of my evolving definition of landscape– that they are nothing but instruments in dynamic relations within a bounded territory.  I say instruments, instead of objects, because there is always some measure of intentionality present- a landscape is not a natural scene but rather a historical assemblage.  And a landscape like the Depot brings up a point- it is the liminal space between intentionality and reality that is really at issue in landscape design.  It is this space that offers a sort of frontier, demanding new tools and ideas to grapple with it.

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