This strange cliff-face, creek-side bridge over a gorge is one of the most unique pieces of functional artwork that one might encounter anywhere, but especially unusual in a “wilderness” city park – which is unique in and of itself. Fingerspan is the work of artist Jody Pinto, commissioned for Fairmount Park’s Wissahickon Valley for the purpose of connecting a path on two sides of a massive split rock outcropping high above the creek bed. It is remarkable that such an effort was made solely for allowing a contiguous trail, perhaps an old Indian trail, to follow along the creek, rising and falling as the terrain roller-coasters parallel to the water on a steep north bank. The first challenge is to locate it, the second is to get to it, and the third is to trust it – but, be assured, there is nothing else like it or the experience it provides in its partnership with its natural surroundings, as an up-close-and-personal appreciation of the rugged environment, except maybe the stairs and observation deck at Niagara Falls.
It is the replacement for an old iron staircase that climbed up and down the rock face and must have been quite a precarious danger. Fingerspan is built in the shape of an index finger with all its joints, in the gesture of a finger from the hand of god or man on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling, pointing the way through our natural world. It is sturdily built of COR-TEN steel, but its skin has a transparency rendered via perforated steel walls (kind of large pinhole spectacles) and its open-grid subway grating floor – it is heavy-duty but dainty: the finger obviously is female. Seeing it, if possible from across the creek, it resembles a buckled train or a rusted-metal covered wagon abandoned at an impassible point in a journey. Climbing on the rock outcropping to get to it feels like the East Coast version of scaling the Mt. Rushmore carved faces in “North By Northwest.”
It is both a bridge and a tunnel, a tunnel that, instead of funneling light at both ends, is penetrated by it on every surface. The bridge arches up where the ground drops off suddenly and there is a sensation of being airborne, causing a little vertigo and a quick check of your footing which is now suspended above a fifty-foot drop over jagged rocks on a see-through floor. Being inside the span feels like walking through an aerial arbor with its ribbed series of arches, and its perforated-metal covering allows dappled light to come through like filtering foliage. The best part is the sense that this is some vestige of a Victorian amusement ride – a caged apparatus that took the starch out of riders’ collars as they ascended the heights and enjoyed an intimacy with the splendors of nature. On one side, the impressively erosion-carved, moss-covered rocks are right there, brushing against the closely nestled bridge; on the other side is a straight downward drop to more rock and, eventually, the creek bed.
If you enter from the fingernail tip, as we did, you climb over much of the massive outcropping; then inside the span, you continue up as the finger arches to the apex of its second joint. From that point, you are working your way down toward the knuckle where it ends, and you begin your descent on a convenient series of fifty stone stairs with landings that wend their way to the creek. Many people approach it in the opposite direction, too, but it seems even more dramatic when you don’t have a real sense of how high up you are until you get there – the element of surprise being a big part of the equation.
It is so unlikely that a 60-foot-long steel structure could provide so much interest and interaction with a deeply wooded ravine without being obtrusive, but it does. The contrasts are so great and, yet, they blend, providing an enhancement of both. Walking on that trail over the course of twenty years or more, we know it wouldn’t be the same experience without this added attraction. Our only regret is that we weren’t there during Fingerspan’s installation in 1987, watching the sections being lowered into place by helicopter – that being really the only way to get it there. But its being there now is as symbiotic as barnacles are on whales. The Wissahickon Valley generally is about as dramatic a landscape as one could hope for, and Fingerspan adds some of its own drama – a match made in, well, an East Coast urban wilderness.