In Manhattan, across the street from the Flatiron building in Madison Square Park, public artist, landscape designer, and architect Maya Lin has created the stark and beautiful memorial Ghost Forest, a set of 49 cut Atlantic white cedar trees that will slowly turn grayer over the course of six months. According to the Madison Square Park Conservancy, which commissioned the project, it represents “a memory of germination, vegetation, and abundance, and a harsh symbol of the devastation of climate change.” The trees, set in a grove within the lawn of the park, are approximately 40 feet tall and were selected to “overwhelm the human scale” and provide a bracing symbol of what the future may hold.
Ghost forests are dead woodland, remnants of past vibrant ecosystems, and are sadly becoming more common. They are found where salt water has intruded into coastal ecosystems, where hurricanes and storms have stripped trees bare, where wildfires have left charred trunks. According to Lin and the conservancy, Atlantic white cedar forests on the East Coast are “endangered by past logging practices and threats from climate change.” The trees used in this public art installation were already slated to be cut from the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, cleared as part of broader ecological restoration efforts. Lin explains that it’s an “extremely vulnerable site of the Atlantic coastal pine barrens ecosystem that encompasses more than one million acres.”
Accompanying the visual experience of Ghost Forest is a soundscape Lin created that uses snippets of sound gathered from the Macaulay Library sound archive at the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. She highlights the sounds of native animals once found in Manhattan. (See link on lower left side of this page).
While raising awareness of climate change’s great toll on ecosystems through the bleached-out trunks, the Conservancy will also also host a series of public programs focused on positive nature-based solutions that can help reduce emissions, help communities adapt, restore ecosystems, and support biodiversity. To create a sense of hope as well, 1,000 trees and shrubs will be planted in five public parks in New York City. The Conservancy states that over ten years, the trees will also store 60.5 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, more than ten times the amount produced by shipping and assembling the art work. The installation will become carbon positive over time.
Lin became famous for winning the commission to create the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. at the age of 21. In recent years, Lin’s interactive art works have deeply engaged with environmental and climate issues. In 2014, she created the powerful web-based piece, What Is Missing?, a virtual memorial designed to raise awareness about the biodiversity crisis — a site worth exploring in detail.
And in Unchopping a Tree, a video memorial to the world’s forests, with music by Brian Eno and Brian Loucks, Lin highlights how quickly glorious parks around the world would be cut down if they experienced the same rate of deforestation as Amazonian rainforests. At 90 acres per minute, Central Park would be gone in just 9 minutes.
Lin told Artforum that “one could argue that none of my memorials have been monuments. Rather, they have been anti-monuments—even the Vietnam memorial. I like to reinvent things.”
Ghost Forest will be free and accessible to the public in Madison Square Park until November 14, 2021.