Fifty million cubic yards of earth were moved to sculpt Seattle as we know it. Courtesy of Seattle Public Library

They were lined up along the muddy edges of freshly cut cliffs in Belltown, locals who couldn't believe their eyes. They were joined by out-of-towners, more than three million tourists who were visiting to feast on the amazements of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909. The amazements included giant pyramids of Hawaiian coconuts, piles of Alaskan gold, a life-size elephant made of exotic nuts, Prince Albert the Educated Horse, various forms of flaming racism, and reenactments of the Battle of Gettysburg inside a replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.

But the scraping and hauling of earth was a bizarre sideshow unto itself. Homes, businesses, sidewalks, streets, lawns, and gardens were washed away in projects financed by property owners who wanted to "do business on the level" rather than on Seattle's punishing hills. Photographs show fathers and children in rows on bluffs, staring down at the spraying hoses. When the earth was broken down, it rode away in chutes to Puget Sound, and there was so much of it that the ocean was pushed back, the shoreline extended. A single cubic yard of earth weighs 2,500 pounds. For 30 years, some 50 million cubic yards of earth were moved to sculpt Seattle as we know it.

According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's 1909 account:

On the Denny Hill job, the largest city regrade undertaken anywhere in the world, the upper stratum of sand and light loam is succeeded by a deep layer of blue clay, in which the greater part of the cutting must be done... You see a man run up the rough side of the bank and prod a long steel rod into the side of the hill. Then he lays a little black stick or two in the hole he has made. Walks back a few feet, strikes a match, bends over with the light and runs. A cry of "Look out!" and a second of suspense, then a crash and a rumble and a jar of the earth for blocks around... A few hundred small chunks, closely followed by a lump half as big as a house, come rolling down the incline. The hydraulic gunners turn their battery of three or four to six giants on the lump, and you see it carried away in the sluice box. Then the gunners direct their fire—that is to say, their water—in the direction of the cracks made by the last explosion, dislodge more, melt it, and so it goes. The fight is waged night and day, save only for the few hours when the city, through the demand for power for its own purposes, is unable to furnish the electricity to operate the big pump at the other end of the job, which is responsible for the fury of the little three- or four-inch-nozzled giants. The fissure widens into a canyon and lengthens slowly but steadily till, as at present, there is a valley as barren and forbidding as the bare dark earth can be. Then the valley is widened as the fire of the giants diverges, and as the steepness of the sides diminishes the steam shovel is finally brought into play to eat up a few hundred thousand yards of the hill at about two yards to the bite. This, briefly, is what we see in a Seattle regrade.

The regrades continued from about 1900 to 1930, and at the same time, the lakes and the city's main river—the Duwamish—were overhauled. The river was straightened and widened. When Lakes Union and Washington were brought level with each other in 1916, the ancient Black River to the south dried right up, leaving salmon flapping. New lands emerged from under the waters, like the place Husky Stadium would sit.

This is the artifice Seattle is founded on, a chain of events as formative as a tectonic shift, but covered over, unnoticed. For decades the nickname for northern downtown was the Denny Regrade, but more recently it took up its original settler name, Belltown (sounds better for condos, right?). All cities are built environments, but Seattle is especially, magnificently fake. And this legacy is an inheritance to the artists who live and work here today, just as much as Seattle's famous wildernesses of "pristine" mountains and water.

Walter De Maria, creator of The Lightning Field, one of the great American works of land art, said, "Isolation is the essence of Land Art." This slogan has been quoted everywhere; I wonder if it's true.

In September, I traveled to The Lightning Field—outside Quemado, New Mexico—as part of a yearlong series of trips to some of the country's classic works of 1970s earth art, scattered throughout the American West. One lesson you learn repeatedly is that the locals, if there are any, aren't there for the art. On the way to Quemado, three hours south and west of Albuquerque, where The Lightning Field is located, a volunteer ranger named Mickey runs the desk at a nature preserve with exhibits of historical pictures and native pottery. He has heard of The Lightning Field but he's never been there; on my way back, he would like me to tell him what it is exactly.

To get to The Lightning Field, you leave your car in front of a two-story white building at the north end of the main street in Quemado—the office of the Dia Art Foundation, which owns The Lightning Field. There are people in Quemado, but it feels distinctly like a ghost town; the place shudders with a sense of isolation. Across the street from the Dia Foundation is a building that looks like an old saloon with a sign that says "Back in Time By Elaine Antiques." It is not open. On both sides of the street, people sit casually behind folding tables. Cast-off clothing, dishes, VHS tapes—that's what's for sale. A night in the cabin at The Lightning Field costs $150 per person (or $250 in July and August); shirts and dresses on the Quemado folding tables cost 25 cents. The woman behind one folding table says she hopes I get to see lightning.

Has she ever seen it there?

No, she says.

Has she ever stayed the night?

No, she says. But for a few years, she was the housekeeper.

If isolation is the essence of The Lightning Field, it's doing a good job of staying isolated even from the people closest to it.

I happen to be wearing all black, and so do the two Swiss women I'll be sharing the cabin with, sisters named Fiona and Olympia, who roll up to the Dia office in a rented silver Airstream. They are on a pilgrimage through the American Southwest, not unusual for a couple of cultured Europeans. Olympia is an artist; Fiona works for a magazine. On the dusty street, we are a blatant blotch of art fashion. The locals don't blink; art/city people arrive at the white building every single day to be shuttled out to The Lightning Field, and this human trafficking seems as much the point as the weather on the sculpture.

You get to the sculpture by way of a driver who takes you 45 minutes out to the site, making dozens of turns on unmarked dirt roads, knowing it all by heart. Her name is Lindsay. No one ever shows up unannounced, she tells you. How could they? Nobody but the family of the caretaker, Robert Weathers (and this is his daughter, Lindsay, driving while sipping on a soda and occasionally checking her cell phone), knows how to get there, except maybe the housekeepers, who keep the simple place spick-and-span and leave you dinner.

Lindsay explains on the drive that the remoteness and animal sounds in the night sometimes spook city people so much that they call the caretaker, who lives several miles away from the field, demanding to be taken back to their cars in the middle of the night. One pictures De Maria, now very old, giggling at his power to bring the art world all the way out into the middle of nowhere and scare the bejesus out of it. (He declined a request for an interview.)

Things are a little tense in the car. Lindsay says Barack Obama is a criminal and too many Mexicans are on welfare. She says she could never live in a city. She is not a believer in cities. She says people don't care about each other in a big city.

It's after 3:00 p.m. when we approach the cabin, still wondering where the field is. It materializes in an instant. Rows and rows of poles come into view against the desert backdrop, cutting the air like they're conducting something from ground to sky or the other way, or both. There are 400 of them, made of stainless steel and stuck into the land, which somebody once described as an acupuncture patient. Each pole is two inches in diameter and, on average, 20 feet tall (they vary with the grade to form an even surface on top, so a glass sheet could theoretically be laid over them). They are 220 feet apart, have pointed tips, and change color with the changing light, from dull gray like pencil lead to burning gold to neon blue to silver. Their other trick is disappearing entirely. Before the sky is dark, they will already be gone from view out the windows of the cabin.

But we've just arrived. We set down bags, plug in cell phones and computers to charge, and admire the 1980s-era phone on a shelf with instructions to call the caretaker if we need him. He's been doing this since the beginning, and he helped to build Field.

Is he into art?

Lindsay laughs. No. She, like him, is a pragmatic person.

Has Lindsay seen lightning strike the poles?

No. When it strikes a rod directly, people say the rod turns molten red, she says, "and that just means we hafta replace 'em."

When she leaves, we explore. In the cabin is a slightly sticky informational binder. There, printed in white, is that sentence again: "Isolation is the essence of Land Art." Also in the cabin: frontier-simple furnishings and bedding, a can of Kirkland mixed nuts, rabbits and mice in the walls who will begin running around as soon as the lights go out, and the prepared dinner (enchiladas, with diced white onions on the side) in the fridge.

There are two competing versions of The Lightning Field, which was created in 1977 and has been receiving visitors since. To put it simply, one version has lightning and the other doesn't. In the lightning version, the place is about drama, danger, and the photographic moment. A famous photograph of it at night is bisected by a pure white crack of lightning with its fingery offshoots radiating the lightning poles the artist planted in the ground. Before you get there, people will tell you, "I hope you get to see lightning!" and when you leave, they will ask if you did. But the artist knew the sedate weather patterns of this place; he intended this other version of The Lightning Field just as much.

In his series of lectures Pictures of Nothing, the late Kirk Varnedoe pointed out that almost nobody ever actually sees lightning at The Lightning Field. There are, on average, three incidences of lightning near the field during lightning season, which only lasts about three months every summer. De Maria wrote in his binder of instructions, "The invisible is real," and I don't know exactly what he meant by that, but I think he also meant that the visible—or the visual—can be unreal.

Out in the field, the poles are not interesting. The ground is uneven and crunchy but soft. We've been warned that rattlesnakes live here. Horned toads leap into view and just sit, looking defiant. The bugs are beefy. Rabbits dart into view. What are those hoof prints? I'm surprised to feel so afraid, so out of place. This is not my ecosystem. I have to dare myself to make it all the way to the middle of the grid, at which point, obnoxiously, like a tourist, I take a picture of myself, even though you're not supposed to take pictures. It's begun to rain lightly and my shoes are muddy. The rain starts to sting; it's hailing. I'm running for the porch, which is a long ways off, where the Swiss women are waving to me. The sky sends down cracks and booms.

Lightning!

Huddling and wet on the porch, wrapped in blankets, we count eight strikes of lightning off in the distance—maybe touching the far end of the field?—and then stop counting as they keep coming, just like in the photograph. The storm ends with two bright rainbows at each end of the sky, and then the sky goes pink. It's ridiculous. We'd expected subtle details and stillness, and instead we got a Wagnerian weather commercial. The Lightning Field gave us a show, though the holy grail of a molten pole did not materialize.

In the night, a pack of coyotes howl, and one of the Swiss women has trouble sleeping with the animal noises in the walls, but nobody calls the caretaker. At sunrise, I wrap myself up and go outside for the famed five minutes of burning orange light just before the sun. The ground under the poles looks purple, and the poles gleam orange. It's incredible, and more so for being so short-lived; the colors quickly dull. I really wish the former housekeeper I met on the street in Quemado were here.

Most American land art was built in the 1970s and sits regally in the remote deserts of the Southwest, where artists had maximum freedom but where their work makes a minimal impact both socially and ecologically. The art is intense but the stakes are low, like a highly contagious person in the middle of nowhere.

Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, a curving line of salt-encrusted rocks out into the Great Salt Lake, is the star of the classic earthworks, with a long tail of poetry and romance. Smithson was killed in a plane crash three years after completing it; it disappeared for years under rising water, then reemerged; it has been photographed from satellites in space but is notoriously hard to find on the ground. When Seattle contemporary art curator Liz Brown went to Spiral Jetty a few years ago, she couldn't find it and thought she might have to turn back without ever getting there; then she spotted a lens cap that had been dropped on the ground. With that, she knew she was in the right place.

Smithson would be pleased to hear this story because, while all the land artists get grouped together, he sharply disagrees with De Maria about the role of isolation. "I never thought of isolating my objects," Smithson once told an interviewer. "[Frederick Law] Olmsted's more interesting to me than, let's say, Duchamp. First of all, Olmsted built Central Park. He moved ten million horse-cart loads of earth to put that together... How the public views the land has to be considered, too. In other words, this isn't a private, cult thing. When you get out to a place like Utah, you're not dealing with rarefied mentalities."

Smithson went to Utah because there, his art would be less isolated from real social, environmental, and ecological conditions than in the bright white world of New York art galleries. For him, remoteness was not an end in itself but a way to set up a point A and a point B, to start a conversation between places. He once said, "I conceive of all objects or paintings as maps of something." The something, plus the art object, is what art really is.

Spiral Jetty is about to lose its star place in the earthworks canon to James Turrell's Roden Crater—an ancient crater on the western edge of Arizona's Painted Desert into which Turrell is carving tunnels and openings for viewing the sky and its celestial events. He's been working on this piece for more than 30 years. He keeps saying he's going to finish it soon. (The former head of Seattle's Henry Art Gallery, Richard Andrews, is the president of the foundation that supports the project; Turrell's studio turned down a request to visit.)

Likewise, there's Michael Heizer, tooling around alone with his heavy machinery for 30-some years in a different spot of remote Nevada desert, shaping the earth into a mile-long set of giant shapes. He is the last remaining art cowboy, already famous for Double Negative, two trenches facing each other across a natural gap in a mesa's edge—which is in some ways just another abstraction by a white guy. Each trench is 50 feet deep, 30 feet wide, several hundred feet long, and crumbling. The walls are soft, stratified sandstone that scatters when you touch it. But when you're nearly falling down the steep slope to the bottom, you have to hang on to something, so the walls have been eroding for decades, herniating the shape of Double Negative.

Musing about abstraction is not what happened when I joined a dozen artists from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, to visit Double Negative this year. We rushed for little metal boxes hidden on the site, called geocaches, where travelers leave things for other travelers to trade with. We made exchanges of the objects based on on-the-spot determinations of value. Later, while eating snacks, we found out we'd unknowingly seen a celebrity: That guy in the red shirt, now gone, was the original photographer and surveyor of Double Negative. Being the original photographer is a big deal; we knew the photographs before we knew this place.

Double Negative remains a hole in the ground in a faraway place, funded, like art through the ages, by a wealthy patron, owned by a museum (the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles), and visited by an elite gaggle of looky-loos who pollute the planet to get there.

When Newsweek first described Double Negative in July 1969—during which time the 240,000 tons of rhyolite and sandstone were being blasted and scooped away—the headline was "The New Art: It's Way, Way Out." Remoteness was key. What could you accomplish by removing people not just from their regular environments but from anywhere human beings normally gathered? Could you do more than reinforce stereotypes about remoteness?

Those questions could be asked of cities in reverse: What can you accomplish by living together in close proximity that you can't living alone and separated? Are cities good for people? When you travel to earthworks, these questions come up repeatedly. You're as much considering the art itself as the place where it lives, and conversations with locals always revolve around place—locals and visitors each sizing the other up like zoo animals, secretly wondering which group is caged and which free. Seattle's special brand of magic comes from promising both. "Seattle invites you to explore two cities in one" is the introductory sentence on the official website of Seattle's Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Here you'll find a vibrant, sophisticated metropolis surrounded by pristine natural beauty and abundant recreation."

As a city dweller—a believer in cities, you could say—I deliberately visited these classic earthworks with other people. It was a social and aesthetic experiment, involving the regular business of art criticism as well as that which is not thought to belong in the realm of the aesthetic (an interview with somebody by the side of the road, for instance). Landscape, place, and the tension between wilderness and urbanity are major preoccupations for Seattle artists. When I asked the artist John Sutton, who's working with collaborators Ben Beres and Zac Culler to create a kind of earthwork in Georgetown converting an old gas station into a city park, how his art would be different if he lived alone in the middle of nowhere, he wasn't sure. I asked him what defines urban art and he said, "I don't know," but then added, "It's not isolationist."

This summer, the Seattle artists Susan Robb and Stokley Towles enlisted 40 people to meet up in a Starbucks parking lot and walk 40 miles out of the city. The Long Walk was three days and two nights of walking on roads and bike/walk paths and the occasional strip of private property—only to turn around and ride a bus the 40 minutes home. Our job was not to prove or produce anything, but simply to hang together from Starbucks through residential demonstrations of Eastside wealth all the way to the edge of Snoqualmie Falls. Isn't there enough isolation in the world already? On one private waterfront lawn, we saw a dollar bill lying in the grass, having been chopped up by the lawnmower that made the landscape look so nice.

It doesn't seem like a coincidence that several of the artists making hybrid visions of and out of Seattle's landscape—those described here are just a few; there are many more—work collaboratively. Several of the Long Walkers were artists, carting with them miniature Space Needles to use as sundials, recollecting stories of their late parents on doomed local sea ships, working out their relationships with land while creating something larger.

Seattle artists think differently about the land than other artists because Seattle has a different relationship with the land than most cities do. Where other artists turn to exotic locales—Jerusalem, Beirut, Juárez, Tongling, as seen in the Princeton University Art Museum's current survey exhibition of land art of the last 10 years—Seattle artists have the inspiration of a conflicted site right where they live. "Second nature" is how environmental historian William Cronon described Seattle; last year, Seattle artists Gretchen Bennett, Jenny Heishman, Heide Hinrichs, and Matthew Offenbacher issued a manifesto at a group exhibition that began, "We are the second peoples."

Landscape art is political here. Elise Richman recently explained that she builds up her topographical paintings from their surfaces (they're like stalagmites) rather than making landscapes that appear to recede (think of a painting of trees and a river with mountains in the distance), because she wants her art to be anti-escapist. Her paintings are little hills jutting into the room. A hill—that mark of urban regrade action—is the signature form of Seattle's land art.

And when Seattle artists take on classic forms like the "double," they twist them. Thirty-six years after Double Negative, the temporary land work Maryhill Double appeared in the arid wilds at the border of Washington and Oregon. In metal scaffolding with a skin of blue construction netting, Maryhill Double was a life-size twin of the Maryhill Museum of Art, the concrete museum standing directly across the Columbia River Gorge that Time magazine dubbed in 1940 "the world's most isolated art museum." It was both a double and a negative, made by Seattle artists Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo (who collaborate as Lead Pencil Studio), but Maryhill Double was nothing like Double Negative. The opposite of two voids, it was a mirror cast on a museum, providing company to Maryhill's isolation. It modeled connection.

Meanwhile, if you ask someone in the know about, say, Michael Heizer's still-in-progress-after-30-years set of giant shapes out in Nevada, they'll warn, "He'll shoot you if you try to visit." No people are allowed. Heizer calls what he's making out there, paradoxically, hilariously, City.

At one point in my year of traveling the country, I find myself at the Center for Land Use Interpretation's base in Wendover, Utah, walking into an abandoned house full of bullet holes—bullet holes in the walls, in the flung-open door of the microwave, in the needlepoint duck on the wall, and all through the mannequin sitting on a destroyed couch. Rows of torsos stand out in the sun, ready for target practice.

CLUI (pronounced "klouie") was founded in 1994 by Matthew Coolidge as an ongoing research and education project, under the belief "that the manmade landscape is a cultural inscription that can be read to better understand who we are, and what we are doing," and Wendover is patently one of the craziest places in the world. Here, U.S. soldiers practice busting into homes for their tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. At its height, during World War II, it was one of the largest military bases in the world, surrounded by millions of acres of secret test sites, gigantic mines, and hazardous-waste dumping grounds. It's not far from the Bonneville Salt Flats; the earth crackles like ice underfoot, and next to the base, in the middle of the desert, acres of ground are covered by sparkling, aquamarine ponds created for industrial mineral collection.

The town of Wendover is a half-Mexican, half-Anglican casino town with a line drawn down the middle of its main street—the border with Nevada. This is where Utahans come to give up their money. Coolidge tells me the fanciest hotel is Montego Bay, and it stands like Valhalla, white and flashing with neon and dark mirrored glass. Inside Montego Bay is the perpetual night of every casino. The restaurant is wallpapered with great big glowing light-box transparencies of tropical-beach photographs. I ask at the front desk if they know about CLUI. They have never heard of it. It is across the street.

A former military Quonset hut at Wendover has sides dotted with patches over bullet holes. Not a hundred yards away is the simulated shoot-out house. Across the base, at CLUI's main exhibition building, there aren't guards or attendants. Most of the time, there's nobody at all in the converted barracks. To get in, you call a phone number listed on the door, pick up the door code, and walk in. Anyone can go, and it's free. Inside, the walls are lined with captioned photographs of every building and landmark on the base and in the area. Maps, too, and details. For artists to have a place here at all is an accomplishment. In this small, weird universe, the role of the land artist is simply to make you see what's on the land.

As the land appears, the art and the artist disappear. The word art is nowhere in CLUI's self-description, and the tone of all CLUI materials is informational. (100 Places in Washington is the opinionless title of CLUI's 1999 book made for Seattle's Center on Contemporary Art.) CLUI smuggles in politics.

There's a red-and-white 50-foot radio tower outside the exhibition hall, a piece of art made in 2004 by Deborah Stratman and called Power/Exchange. Go up to it and turn the dials, and you can hear what people in Wendover are ordering at fast-food drive-through windows, or the security guards talking at the local casinos, or the police scanner—all these are frequencies that are publicly accessible. It's land art as citizens' radio. People will tell you to go to Spiral Jetty, or The Lightning Field, or, soon, Roden Crater. But if you have to pick just one, go to CLUI Wendover. It is the most unbelievable of all earthworks, by pointing back from art into the world.

The cornerstones of Northwest land art are two large permanent works in south King County, dated 1979 and 1982. The 1982 work, by late Bauhaus modernist Herbert Bayer, is a two-and-a-half-acre sculpture park in Kent that solved a water problem in the city—a series of geometric shapes and walkways made of earth, but underneath, pure function. It's a functioning dam. Recently, it came under attack when new laws were put into place anticipating humongous floods. Altering its form indiscriminately would damage the artist's work, but preserving it precisely would render it legally useless as a dam, and the artist intended it to work. The compromise solution is not perfect; the grumbling continues. It may yet be altered again.

The 1979 work is a reclaimed and reshaped gravel pit that the artist, Robert Morris, has declared a failure. When it was built, Morris publicly warned that if it eventually came to seem natural, or like a nature preserve or recreational park, then it would have failed—would have whitewashed environmental history and become another abstraction. "When this work was built," Morris said in a recent e-mail interview, "nobody lived near it. Even the view out into the valley was then mostly absent any industrial development. Now I believe that neither is the case. Whatever political edge the work once had, if any, has, I would guess, long ago washed out of it."

Today, Morris's earthwork finds itself squeezed by teeming colonies of suburban townhomes built within the last 10 years. Those townhomes are full of people who think Morris's earthwork is a dog park. Nobody notices the blackened tree stumps lining the top of the hill or Morris's defiant words on the faded plaque, intended to disillusion those who would "suppose that artists hired to work in industrially blasted landscapes would necessarily and invariably choose to convert such sites into idyllic and reassuring places, thereby socially redeeming those who wasted the landscape in the first place."

Morris may think of it as a failure, but failure is a part of art, and land art especially. John Sutton, Ben Beres, and Zac Culler (they make art together as SuttonBeresCuller) have been working on their earthwork of sorts, Mini Mart City Park, in Georgetown for five years—and they still aren't sure they can pull it off. "Everyone has told us to stop," Sutton said last spring about the project, which is to turn an abandoned 1930s gas station on South Warsaw Street and Ellis Avenue into a tiny city park with a teeny community center inside it. The building will be embedded in a fake grassy hill that will jut up from the tide flat area like a sore thumb. You'll climb the hill to stand on the rooftop of the building (the interior of which will also be open, available, and free for public events).

Unlike downtown, where everybody wants to get on the roof to see the water and the mountains, nobody comes to South Seattle for a view of nature. This is Boeing's neighborhood. People mostly disappear inside closed plants with huge doors made for machines, not humans. But at Mini Mart City Park, you'll have your own personal lookout, like a discoverer in a Hudson River School painting. It's just that what you're discovering is not nature.

The problem is that the land SuttonBeresCuller is proposing to redevelop is brownfield—land that has been polluted and left for dead—made of unstable fill over an old riverbed in a liquefaction zone. The foundation of any building here has to be ridiculously deep because of the geology, and construction can only begin after the soil is tested, after the various agencies sort out who is responsible and who has to pay to clean it, because it's filthy. One rainy day this autumn, an EPA crew had arrived to test the smelly soil by sucking it out from as deep as 12 feet using a truck-mounted drill with a bit the size of a telephone pole. "TESTING TESTING 123," a sign said. "This is a good demonstration of worst-case scenario," one tester told the artists about what they were finding.

Nevertheless, the artists are not stopping. SuttonBeresCuller says Mini Mart City Park is not meant to be a scot-free reclamation. Their aim is exploration, which makes them like pioneers—just more responsible this time around. (It's not surprising that SBC wants to do a residency at CLUI Wendover.) Mini Mart City Park is self-consciously artificial, a cross between a sculpture and a stage set, and SBC does not want it to become just another "preserve" frozen in time. One of its major inspirations is Boeing 2, now slated for demolition. At one point, Boeing 2 had rooftop lawns, too. But nobody sunbathed or gardened or held barbecues on them. They were a fake-out. Boeing built entire neighborhoods on its roof during World War II to hide the bomber factory from flyover spies. Mini Mart City Park simulates Boeing's simulation. This isn't returning the land to nature. It's returning it to history.

Seattle visualizes natives more than any other American city, Coll Thrush points out in his book Native Seattle. Manhole covers with native designs on downtown Seattle streets illustrate a long-standing forced nostalgia declaring people dead and gone before they are. Each manhole cover might be seen as a symbolic tomb, burying someone alive.

Few tourists realize, or maybe would even care, that the totem pole in Pioneer Square—which always seems to show up in novels set in Seattle—was stolen from Alaska in 1899. (Local native tribes do not make totem poles at all.) Called the Chief-of-All-Women Pole, it was made in honor of a high-ranking Tlingit woman who drowned while going to help a sick relative; it stood 50 feet tall and had her cremated remains inside it. In 1899, a group of Seattle developers, bankers, and clergy on a ship chartered by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer saw it, liked it, and chopped it down at the base, knocking off its raven's beak while hauling it here to use as advertising on postcards that represented Seattle around the world. Today, the Chief-of-All-Women Pole has no plaque or label. How to explain?

The pole there now is a copy made after a fire destroyed the original in 1938. When two Indians with known skills in the Tlingit tradition were identified to make the replacement, they were rejected because they were seen playing baseball, which was deemed too modern. They did not demonstrate the white myth that natives are frozen in time, and that time is over.

Seattle's history is the history of making the artificial seem authentic, turning what's become merely normal into something "natural." When the Convention and Visitors Bureau calls this a "sophisticated metropolis surrounded by pristine natural beauty," it seems to be describing a place where only the buildings are built. But almost anywhere you walk downtown, the earth under your feet was sculpted by men and machines—not just the surface, but the shape of the earth itself.

Four years ago, a Seattle artist and architect named Jerry Garcia made a radical proposal based on this history of sculpting. Called Make Believe, the proposal was a model for a city park Garcia wanted to see built. His idea was to dredge up the original regraded earth that was dumped into the Sound—it's scheduled to be dug up for the tunnel replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct—and put it back. He wanted to reconstruct a piece of Denny Hill, to regrade the regrade.

He wasn't driven by nostalgia, or ecological restoration. (In fact, his plan called for the chopping down of hundred-year-old trees in the park.) Instead, he wanted to create a freakish, monster, artist-made landmark that would continuously reenact a part of history, demonstrating that what has become normal is not necessarily "natural"—and also, that even radical change is possible and has precedent. Make Believe would raise the current Denny Park to original grade, 60 feet above street level. The chunk of land would be accessible only by elevator and in appearance would take after the "spite mounds" that appeared during the original regrades, when certain property owners refused to go along and watched as their plots were stranded in midair.

If Garcia's plan was to mix the metaphors of nature and culture, it was only in order to expose that they're already intermingled—especially in this "wilderness city" of Seattle, where in 1914, author Welford Beaton described the role of art here in his book The City That Made Itself: "Nature hung pictures on Seattle's horizon so that her citizens could live in an atmosphere of perpetual artistic enjoyment." But just as the city is not an upper-class parlor, art and nature are not decorations. Garcia's plan was roundly rejected because chopping down trees for art rather than commerce is unthinkable, which is interesting in itself.

Make Believe's boldness as an idea is that it announces the artist not as a decorator but as a place-maker, a member of the pantheon of legitimate authors of culture alongside engineers, politicians, and business owners. To allow an artist to shape the land—that would mean endowing artists with actual, not just symbolic, power.

The Black River was the center of home for Duwamish people, and it dried up when the lakes were rearranged in 1916. People flocked and stuffed nets full of flapping salmon. When I drove down to Renton and tried to find the Black River one day, I didn't see signs of it. In something called the Black River Riparian Forest, which is said to have terrific herons, there is a kiosk that shows the east-west S of the Black River, and then on the next map, it is gone. The river ran through the giant soccer park built for the Sounders, but there's no mark of its disappearance.

The only interpretive art out there is next to the Riparian Forest, with a black grotto at its heart. The grotto is slimy and grimy because it's where water continually runs over a stone. It has benches, Gaudi-esque curves, and mosaics; this is Lorna Jordan's interpretation of the King County wastewater treatment plant next door. Her 1996 sculpture is a landscape of 11 ponds that clean stormwater. They don't use art as a cover-up. They start from the presumption that there is already enough that we don't see, that in this place there's more to be read than the enduring "secret," as Denise Levertov put it, of the romantic mountain in the distance.

Coming into the United States toward Seattle from British Columbia, drivers last month started seeing a new sight: Non-Sign, by Maryhill Double artists Lead Pencil Studio. It's a great web of welded metal bits forming around an empty rectangular space where a billboard would go. It's a warning that emptiness—isolation—is a construction, too. And it's a reminder of how much about this place we haven't read yet.

"We generally look upon the building of the Panama Canal as one of the biggest works ever undertaken by mankind... This regrade undertaking of the city of Seattle is one-third as large a project," a breathless writer reported in The World To-Day ("A Monthly Record of Human Progress") in 1910—with two decades of Seattle land-moving still to go. Regrading happened in the establishment of a handful of American cities—especially Pittsburgh and Boston—but Seattle's was incomparable. The Seattle Times boasted about how artificial Seattle was: "The queen city of the west has gone to the beauty parlor many times to have her face changed." Artifice, check. But art? Is Seattle a land sculpture? Can a city be a work of art? The sparkling cities of Western Europe have been dubbed artworks for centuries; it's time to take American history in hand. Seattle is one of the biggest, most outrageous land sculptures in American history. It tells you what's possible even when it seems impossible, and it tells you what not to do, too. It turns out that Seattle—not just Mount Rainier—is every kind of inspiration. recommended

A Project of the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program